Parshat Yitro: Exodus 18:1-20:23; Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 33:25-26.
This week’s portion describes the most significant event in human history: The Jewish people stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah.
While the Torah certainly had an enormous impact on the Jewish nation, its imprint on the rest of the world cannot be understated. Both Christianity and Islam accept the Jewish covenant at Sinai to be historical fact and the basis for their own religions. It is truly a Divine and theological masterpiece worthy of careful study.
At the core of the Torah (and this week’s parshah) are the 10 Commandments. While most of the commandments are straightforward, “Don’t kill; Don’t steal, etc.,” the last one is remarkably different. It says “You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your fellow.”
It is one thing to command a person not to take something that belongs to someone else, but telling people not to even want something is entirely different. How can you command people not to feel an emotion?
The great medieval scholar Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra answers this with a very powerful insight. He says the answer to the last commandment lies in the first commandment, “I am HaShem your God.” Once one understands that there is a God, it follows that He chose to create the universe with a plan in mind. And as Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg of Kids Kicking Cancer always likes to say, “God made an imperfect world perfectly.”
We are put in a world that constantly provokes us to give in to our basest animal instincts, whether they are raw emotional responses like anger or a voracious appetite for all things physical even when they are harmful for us. We are meant to overcome those urges and choose good and disciplined behavior over evil, thereby perfecting our character.
God, therefore, put us in an environment best suited for us to achieve that greatness. We are given a very distinct personality, put in a particular family and culture, with a unique set of challenges that we are meant to overcome. He gave us a Torah, which is meant to serve as a guiding light, helping us navigate the daily challenges with its timeless wisdom for living.
Once we come to the stark realization that God put us into a tailor-made environment, giving us everything we need to overcome those challenges, our perspective undergoes a transformation. It no longer matters what other people have because we have a very different purpose and mission, to rise above our own personal struggles and become better, happier people. Suddenly, it’s not so hard to be happy with what we have. This attitude is critical, as there will always be people who have things or abilities that we do not: a better car, house, job or family.
This attitude raises us toward an even greater achievement. Not only will we no longer be jealous of the success of others, but we will be genuinely happy for them and what they have. And who wouldn’t want to live in a community where everyone genuinely celebrates in one another’s good fortune?
Rabbi Noam Gross works as an educator for the Young Professional Division of Partners Detroit.