Does anyone remember Steve Martin’s stand up shtick “What I Believe” from the early ‘80’s? It was very funny. (Look it up on YouTube.) Anyway, in this comedy routine, he raises his hand high and solemnly avers that he believes in “eight - of the Ten Commandments.”
Everybody says they believe in the Ten Commandments, right? If you polled most people they would say that keeping the Ten Commandments is the basis for being a good person. OK, fine. Now ask them to actually LIST the ten…in any order…no rush… [deer in the headlights time]
Let's focus on one of the ones that I think Steve had trouble with, the Tenth Commandment. The pasuk says: Do not covet the house of your friend; do not covet the wife of your friend, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his mule, and anything that belongs to your friend.” [Exodus 20:14]
“Do Not Covet.” Think about that for a minute. Jealousy or desire is a feeling. How can the A-lmighty legislate our feelings? I get “Keep the Shabbat.” I get “Don’t Murder.” But how can Hashem say to us, “Don’t desire the Bugatti Veyron, the most expensive car in the world, or that hunky guy, or that cute girl, or that magnificent home.” Isn’t that instant of desire more like an instinct, the green-eyed monster that resides in us all; isn’t something primal that just happens, something over which we have no control?
The Ibn Ezra has an interesting insight into this conundrum. He explains it with a parable: an "average joe" finds a particular supermodel or actress stunningly beautiful. [OK so I’m paraphrasing a wee bitsicule…] Pretty as she may be, he doesn’t really desire her, because he knows deep down that she is unattainable. The Ibn Ezra goes on: and don’t confuse him with someone with irrational desires, like a meshuga who desires to sprout wings and fly like a bird. It’s more akin to a man not desiring his mother, because no matter how beautiful she may be, he is conditioned from childhood that such a liaison is impossible.
Thank you, Rabbi Ibn Ezra. Please take a seat. In this, we have the kernel of an answer to the question. The Torah here is teaching us something quite remarkable. The Torah is saying to us, “do not be a slave to your desires. Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.” That bears repeating:
Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.
Show me a person who acts on their feelings, and I will show you a person who’s life is total chaos. We all know such people – the drama mamas (and drama daddies.) Their life is a personal private soap opera. We feel bummed out, so we overeat (pass the Haagen Dasz – no, no, the BIG one). We feel stressed out, so we drink to excess. We yearn for approval, so we yield to peer pressure. (You got a tattoo where?) We feel impassioned, so we step out on our spouses. We feel needy, so we steal. We feel rage, so we raise a hand to a spouse or a child, or we vandalize and even murder. We live in an age of no hang-ups, where self-expression is the quintessence of modern art; where every feeling is natural and healthy and is not to be denied.
That the very opposite is true is one of the greatest contributions of Torah to Western thought. Over 3000 years later, Dr. William James, the father of modern psychology, would say “We become what we think about.” In other words, our thoughts become actions, and our actions control our feelings. [Like, sure, it was his idea…]
Pirkei Avot echoes this theme when it teaches us: “Who is strong? One who conquers their passions.” [Avot 4:1] R’ Yosef Soleveitchick, arguably one of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century, Jewish or otherwise, wrote that only when we exercise our most human faculty of reason can we be truly free, for those who act upon emotion, instinct and passion emulate the behavior of animals, who, lacking freedom of choice, can never be free.
We choose our actions, and our actions program our emotions. Let that sink in for a moment. True freedom is making a conscious choice to act. That is why our sages tell us, ‘put on tefillin every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Daven every day, even if you’re not in the mood.’ That is the essence of “mitzvah,” to do it anyway. Our sages understood that the action performed without proper intent, over time, will reprogram us to feel the mitzvah and we will grow to perform it properly.
The way we observe the Tenth Commandment is to behave in ways that thwart feelings of jealousy or inappropriate desire. So if you’re feeling depressed, plant a garden. If you’re stressed, meditate. If you’re feeling passionate, sing opera. If you’re feeling needful, volunteer at a hospital or at soup kitchen. Feeling rage? Write a poem. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Whatever you do, if your change your behavior, your feelings will take care of themselves.
What a wonderful, empowering, liberating message! Lo Tachmod is a personal Declaration of Independence. The A-lmighty is telling us: you are no longer slaves to another man; do not fall into the trap of becoming a slave to yourself. True freedom is only to be found in service to Me, and the reward for My service, the performance of Mitzvot, is a profound soul-peace; loving relationships; a sane, ordered life; health; and length of days to enjoy it all.
Ken tehiye lanu – so may it be for us all!