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Parshas Yisro (5774)

The Princess & the Pauper: A Lesson in Faith

We can all understand when a parent tells a child not to take away his younger brother's toy train, that this is a normal demand to make of him. However, if the parents would demand from their son that he not even want his brother's toy train .. we would think they were out of their minds. After all, the child is human. Of course he wishes he could have his brother's toy. The most we can ask of him is that he realizes that although he wants it, he still can't take it away from his brother.

If this is the case, how can we understand what G-d asks from all of us in the Tenth Commandment? He asks us not to covet our friends' house, wife, “Beemer”, etc. (see Exodus 20:14). What kind of demand is that? Our actions can be legislated, but surely not our emotions! If I see my neighbor's Rolls Royce, and I want it real badly, how can G-d ask me not to want it?

Ibn Ezra, one of the great medieval commentators on the Torah, explains this difficult concept as follows: Imagine a pauper living in some outlying village far away from real civilization. One day he hears that a beautiful princess is passing through town. As he stands there in his rags, gazing at the princess, one thing that likely never crosses his mind is the fantasy of spending the rest of his life together with her.

You see, normal, sensible people long to acquire only things that are within their frame of reference, but not things that are beyond the scope of their imagination. So the pauper might covet his neighbor’s daughter, but not the beautiful princess who lives on a different social level. He just knows that she's out of his league.

This same concept can be applied to us in our everyday lives as well. The Torah teaches us that G-d gave each of us certain innate abilities and talents. These were given to us to be used constructively to benefit ourselves and others, and can never be taken away from us. All our worldly possessions are also gifts from G-d that were given to us for a specific purpose. For example, one person might be blessed with tremendous wealth in order that he take some of that money and donate it to charity. This is his own uniquely designed test, a test meant for him and for no one else. Another person might have a fancy car because that's what G-d wanted him to have.

The bottom line – and what G-d is asking of us in the Tenth Commandment – is that we have enough faith in G-d to realize that whatever the next person has was meant for him or her, and there is absolutely no way that we can get it against G-d's will. As the Talmud teaches us in Yoma 38b: “A person cannot touch that which Heaven has prepared for his fellow”. So there’s no point in coveting what our friend has when it's simply out of our league - just like the princess is to the pauper.

Additionally, the Torah, when prescribing the act of coveting, tells us not covet “everything that belongs to our neighbor”. This teaches us a profound lesson, as it points to the fact that we tend to covet selectively, rather than perceiving the entire picture when it comes to the object of our desire. It is as though G-d says to us, “Really, you covet your friend’s job? You want to have what he has? You want to be him? Okay, fine with me. You’ll get the money he has. But you’ll also get everything else he has. You’ll have to put up with his tyrannical boss, his wife who makes his life miserable, and his kids who are spoiled rotten and who never talk to him unless they need money!”

An old Jewish folktale relates how the few inhabitants of a small village all gathered around in a circle, each carrying his ‘peckel’, his package representing his life’s troubles and personal sorrows. They all threw their sacks into the middle and were instructed that they could pick up anyone else’s. They could give up all their problems and take on someone else’s peckel. After seeing what was in all the other sacks, each of the villagers chose their own sacks once again and made their way home with a renewed confidence.

We can never know what’s really going on in someone else’s life – glorious as it may seem from the outside, and, if and when we do find out, we often would rather stay with exactly what we have.

It turns out that the Tenth Commandment is a very important and practical lesson in trusting G-d and in dealing with all the envy-induced stress in our lives He created us, so He knows what's best for us. If He wants us to have what belongs to our neighbor, then we will get it. But in the meantime, it’s not ours, so it’s not meant for us. We spend so much of our time thinking out what could have been, and what the other guy’s got that we missed out on. And G-d is watching us, hoping that we'll stop all this futile wishing, and start appreciating all those things that we do have, and that were meant just for us.

As Charles Osgood once wrote:

Everywhere you look it seems
Everybody always dreams
Of getting what he hasn't got
And somehow being what he's not.

Other people, in our eyes
Always seem the lucky guys
We're the ones whose lot is meaner
Than over where the grass is greener.

Some other house, some other car
Than what you drive, or where you are.
We envy other people's faces
Yet before you go trade places

Think, for it's most likely true
That other people envy you.

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