July 30, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #983, Parsha Thought, VaEs'chanan


One of the most significant sections of this week’s parsha is Moses’ repetition of the Ten Commandments (more accurately, the Ten Statements) that were mentioned for the first time in the book of Exodus.

There is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that “everything follows the end.” This means, for example, that the very last item on a Torah list captures the essence of that entire list. In our case, the very last commandment repeated in this week’s parsha (albeit, with some additional detail) is “And you shall not covet your fellows wife, you shall not desire your fellows house, his field, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow.”

Does the fact that this is the final commandment suggest that it expresses the ultimate goal of Judaism? Our challenge is to find some way of understanding that it encapsulates all of the commandments.

It is interesting to note that Maimonides concludes his Mishneh Torah by describing the Messianic Age. In his very last paragraph, he describes a world in which there will be no more jealousy.

This placement suggests that Maimonides considers the lack of jealously to be the ultimate goal of the Messianic Age; furthermore, it will take more time to achieve this milestone than any of the other monumental changes that will occur during the Messianic Age.

Why, we may ask, is this human failure of coveting and jealousy considered so ingrained in our consciousness that its elimination will represent the crowning event of the Age of Redemption?

To underscore the daunting challenge of overcoming envy, we should reflect on the fact that the very first crime committed by one human against another was Cain’s murder of Abel. He became enraged with the envy he felt when G-d accepted Abel’s offering and not his own. Envy was the first example of the breakdown of human relationships and it seems destined that it will be the last thing to be rectified.


Envy demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the boundaries G-d created in this world. It derives from a piercing, primitive feeling that if another person has something desirable, then I am entitled to have it instead. It is a failure to appreciate that, as our Sages put it, “A person cannot encroach upon what I set aside for his fellow.” G-d gave each person the resources that were intended for him or her.

The issue of boundaries, in a broader sense, informs all of the commandments. It is G-d Who gave us limits and erected barriers between us and the world around us. He did not intend us to indulge in our every whim. However, the paradigm for all these restrictions is the tenth commandment: do not covet.

The question can be raised, why has envy posed such a formidable challenge for us? Why is it so difficult to expunge our covetousness? Why will we have to wait for the Messianic Age (and perhaps, even for one of its more advanced stages, as one can infer from Maimonides placing this promise at the end of his discussion of the Messianic Age) to see the disappearance of jealousy?


While this commandment underscores the need for us to respect boundaries, there are at least two other Torah imperatives for us to not be stifled or restricted by them.

Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter 5:10) states: “One who says… ‘mine is mine and yours is yours,’ this is the average characteristic, and some say this is the characteristic of Sodom.” As commentators point out, to turn selfishness into a philosophy as they did in Sodom is manifestly evil. On one hand it sounds reasonable and as though it is based on a healthy respect for the integrity of our possessions as well as the other’s. On the other hand, it smacks of the inhospitable Sodomite people who could never cross over the fence that separated them from the outsider.

G-d wants us to give freely of our own resources to others. Ideally, we should transcend our sense of ownership to say “mine is yours and yours is yours.” The ideal is not to be boxed in by borders but to transcend them.

Second, the Talmud states that every individual has to say “the world was created for me.” This is intended to teach each individual to feel responsibility for the entire world. Moreover, the Jewish people were directly instructed that each individual is responsible for the other. There is a Biblical commandment to rebuke others who fail to fulfill their responsibilities. “Mind your own business” was never a Jewish slogan. Everyone else’s business is our business!

These two factors — that we must give of our own to others and that we are responsible for others — can be a double-edged sword. While we reach out to help the other we may lose sight of and be insensitive to the other’s privacy. Indeed, once we cross the line and trespass into the other’s territory we might look to see what the other possesses, sparking a feeling of envy. The coveter may feel he or she has license to trespass and encroach on the private lives of others because of the Torah’s insistence that we reach out to them sometimes.

We can easily see how a person who emphasizes one aspect of Jewish life can forget that there are other imperatives that require us to go in an opposite direction. As we cross over into the domain of others in order to help them, we must still respect their privacy.

Even in marriage which, according to the Zohar, is the reunion of two half souls separated at birth, one must allow for the husband and wife to have their own spaces. This is reflected in the law of family purity that mandates periods of physical separation in a marriage. These periods of separation ensure that the partners in life do not violate each other’s’ boundaries.


We can now see why envy is the last human failure to be corrected. It simply requires the most powerful form of balance.

Had the Torah not imposed on us the need to remove barriers between people by helping and taking responsibility for them, it would not be so difficult a challenge to banish envy. People who mind their own business are less likely to be tempted to look into each other’s domain and covet their possessions.

It is precisely those people, the ones who are obsessed with reaching out to help others and ignore all the boundaries, who may disregard the borders necessary to guarantee the integrity of each individual.

The power to integrate the two, both to respect the boundaries and be able to transcend them, will be fully operational only in the Messianic Age.


The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets. According to the Midrash, they were placed side by side and we can therefore read them either vertically, from one to ten, or horizontally, i.e., the first commandment followed by the sixth, the second followed by the seventh etc. Accordingly, the commandment which precedes the one about coveting is to “honor your father and mother.”

What is the connection between filial responsibility and not coveting?

One may suggest that just as there are geographic boundaries there are also chronologic borders. Honoring our parents is our way of respecting their seniority and not treating them as our peers. Honoring our parents is a paradigm for all of the commandments in the Torah that require of us to respect people from an earlier time frame, which includes parents, teachers, senior citizens and authority figures.

It seems, though, that much like envy, proper respect for elders and authority figures is one of the most elusive challenges of our time. Indeed, the Mishna declares that in the last days before the coming of Moshiach there will be much chutzpah, with the young rebelling against their elders.

What is the cause of this phenomenon?

Here too the answer is that the Torah demands that we remove the barriers between generations even as we, paradoxically, respect those barriers. We are living in times where the elders have to listen more carefully to the needs and demands of the youth because in many ways they are the more altruistic group. Even in the distant past, our Sages spoke of how a teacher gets the most knowledge from his students, even more so than from his teachers and colleagues. In Messianic times, the prophet Malachi predicts, “The hearts of the fathers will be returned to G-d through the children.” Because the division between young and old has been partially erased we have therefore witnessed a breakdown in the needed boundaries.


The challenge today is not only to find the right balance; the ultimate goal is to introduce a trans-boundary energy within the boundaries.

This was the power vested in the Bais HaMikdash, the most significant part of which was the Ark. While the Ark, our Sages tell us, had precisely prescribed dimensions, it miraculously occupied no physical space in the Temple. It introduced a Divine power that transcends space into the very parameters of space.

This is why we focus on rebuilding the Bais HaMikdash in these days before and after Tisha B’Av. It will enable us to create the energy that will take us beyond our prescribed borders into a world of precise measurements and boundaries.


Another paradox of the co-existence of barriers and barrier transcending power is the division between the revealed teachings of Torah, such as its laws, and the inner dimension and mystical aspects of Torah knowledge. For thousands of years this body of esoteric knowledge was kept secret. There was a clear separation between these two disciplines. But, in the last few hundred years, particularly with the advent of Chassidus, that wall of separation has come down. This mystical knowledge has been publicized and made accessible to countless individuals.

However, these teachings remain in a category of their own and the separation still exists. Here too we can see the Messianic phenomenon materializing: the fusion of two opposite worlds, with the removal of barriers even as we preserve their integrity.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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