For my 12th birthday, my parents gave me a 10-karat gold signet ring, with my initial “J” engraved with a flourish on top. It was the first real piece of jewelry I had ever owned. A week later, I entered the new and confusing world of junior high, where it seems no one is quite sure who they are and everyone just wants to be someone.
The gym class part of that world required that we remove our jewelry and store it in our lockers. One day when I went to retrieve my ring, it was not there. I was devastated.
The next day, my best friend noticed a ring like mine on the finger of a girl in one of her classes. She was sure it was my ring. Using her best detective skills, she engaged the girl in conversation to try to find out why a girl whose name started with an R would be wearing a J-initial ring.
“Oh, it’s my boyfriend’s ring,” the girl replied matter-of-factly. “His name starts with a J.”
My friend was not convinced. In fact, she was even more certain that the ring was mine, and that the girl had stolen it from my gym locker. “She’s lying,” she told me. She was certain enough that she went to the school’s principal and told him the story.
Perhaps because the accused girl was no stranger to trouble, the principal believed my friend. He called the other girl into his office, where she at first denied everything, repeating the boyfriend story. He continued to talk with her and question her, and she finally confessed to stealing the ring. It turns out she didn’t have a boyfriend, either.
In a fairly quick sequence of events, this girl broke at least three of the Ten Commandments. She coveted. She stole. And then she lied—several times—to cover up what she’d done.
Perhaps her actions were motivated not by desire for a ring but by something much deeper. Maybe it was desire to be someone she wasn’t. Not someone whose name started with a J, but someone others would perceive as cool, daring and intriguing.
Wanting something is not necessarily bad or wrong. But unbridled desire for something that rightfully belongs to someone else is, and it can lead down quite dangerous and destructive roads.
It’s what compels one teenager to murder another so he can have his high-priced athletic shoes. It’s what motivates a man or woman to infidelity with another person’s spouse. It’s what pushes employee to steal from employer.
“It is not forbidden to wish to have a house like my neighbor’s house or a car like his or even a woman just like his wife,” writes Rabbi Arnold Wolf in Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999). “What is forbidden, I think, is to want his car or his wife, her house or her husband—to replace the other, not to replicate her. ”
“It is all right to want to have a big house. It is forbidden to want to live in someone else’s house or life. I am commanded to be me, not you or her. I am forbidden to covet your place, to wish to be you,” he says.
To covet, says Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva in the same book, “is to deny our own life and our own being, which God cannot abide.”
The last commandment forces us back to the first, and if we earnestly seek to keep the first, we will be too occupied to break the others.
When we love God with all we are, we discover who we are in relation to God and to others and seek to live peaceably and productively within those relationships.
In that process, we find our truest selves.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.