“Thou shalt not covet,” the last of the Ten Commandments—read in synagogues around the world this Sabbath—is something of an outlier, writes Jonathan Sacks. Prohibiting envy, not an activity but a natural human emotion, it seems less grave than “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Sacks, however, considers it in light of the overall biblical narrative and of Jewish history, and argues for its paramount importance:
[E]nvy is one of the prime drivers of violence in society. It is what led Iago to mislead Othello with tragic consequences. Closer to home, it is what led Cain to murder Abel. . . . Most poignantly, envy lay at the heart of the hatred of the brothers for Joseph. They resented his special treatment at the hands of their father, the richly embroidered cloak he wore, and his dreams of becoming the ruler of them all. That is what led them to contemplate killing him and eventually to sell him as a slave. . . .
Jews have special reason to fear envy. It surely played a part in the existence of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries. Non-Jews envied Jews their ability to prosper in adversity. . . . They also and especially envied them their sense of chosenness (despite the fact that virtually every other nation in history has seen itself as chosen). . . .
So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only, though, do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commandments, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.