How on earth are we supposed to control our thoughts?

Rabbi Daniel Beider

Ohr Somayach Glenhazel


You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, nor their servants, nor his ox or his donkey, nor anything that is your fellow’s. (Exodus 20:14)


לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹֽא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ. (שמות כ:יד)


The final of the Ten Commandments is in some senses the most enigmatic. We are asked not to be jealous.1


When the Torah asks us not to steal or murder, it is asking us to control our actions. Controlling actions is not always easy, but it’s doable.


Not to be jealous however – the Torah is asking us to control our thoughts. The moment we are asked NOT to think of something, automatically we think of that very thing. How on earth are we supposed to control our thoughts?


The Ibn Ezra explains using a parable.2 A woodchopper caught a brief glimpse of a princess riding past as he chopped his wood. For a brief moment he fantasised of asking for her hand in marriage. How happy he and she would be in his ramshackle cottage! He would chop wood, while she darned his socks, and cooked gruel for their romantic dinner each evening.


As the princess disappeared into the distance, the woodchopper laughed at the ridiculousness of his fantasy, “She is from a different world, a different universe, and for her and I to wed would be utterly preposterous. It was NEVER going to happen, and it is NEVER going to happen”, he realised. Certain things are beyond the realm of jealousy. We can only be jealous of that which we associate with, and once we internalise that there is NO association with a certain object, there is no longer any scope for jealousy.


And he continued chopping wood.


Says the Ibn Ezra, the command to not be jealous starts WAY before you’ve noticed your neighbour’s new car and started salivating over it. Not being jealous involves embracing the woodchopper’s realisation, and consciously dissociating from other peoples’ possessions.


Hashem has precisely chosen what each of us is meant to have. My neighbour has what he needs. I have what I need. What is there to be jealous about!


1. Exodus 20:14

2. Ibn Ezra, Exodus 20:14

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