Lessons of Adultery

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

In this week’s Parshah, Yitro, the Jewish people receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, and are provided with the mission that will guide their destiny throughout the ages.

Specifically, however, a great portion of the Torah – both the written law and the oral law – was communicated to Moses when he ascended Mount Sinai alone over the course of the following months. On that fateful day, however, when the Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, they heard only select few of what would later number 613: the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments are an eclectic bunch. They include the most lofty principles and concepts, such as believe in the one G-d, and the rejection of polytheism; and they address our most base instincts, cautioning us not to kidnap or murder.

And of course, they include two commandments directed at our sexual and covetous natures: the seventh, and the tenth.

The Seventh Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus, 20:13. Some commentaries suggest that “adultery” is provided merely as the most common example indulgence, but that the commandment includes all such forbidden sexual relationships. Others, however – most notably, Rashi – maintain that the word used for adultery is quite specific, and pertains only to forbidden relationship with another man’s wife. This of course begs the question: why would adultery be singled out?

The Tenth commandment is the all-encompassing prohibition against coveting. One may not covet anything belonging to his neighbor, including his house, his wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, and his donkey. Exodus, 20:14. Although “thou shalt not covet” is very broad in its scope, for Jewrotica readers, there is really only one focus of the commandment: the prohibition of coveting another man’s wife. Significantly, however, this commandment too does not appear to address the inherently immorality of lusting and coveting. There is nothing in it that would prohibit a man from lusting after another man, or his sister; it is only coveting another man’s wife that is forbidden. Why indeed?

Figuring out the Ten Commandments has been a favorite pastime of biblical scholars for thousands of years. Why ten? Why these ten? Why five and five in two tablets, as opposed to all ten on a single tablet? How do the commandments relate to one another? Is there a theme or pattern? To even attempt to distill a summary of the myriad commentaries on this topic would go far beyond the scope of this column. However, there are two patterns that I would like to share – a double mitzvah, as it were.

One famous explanation as to why the Ten Commandments were given in two sets of five is that the first five have a very different character than the second five. The first five represent those commandments that are between us and our Creator. Believing in G-d, not worshipping idols, not taking G-d’s name in vain, keeping Shabbat, and honoring one’s father and mother (because honoring one’s parents is a vicarious means of, and a primer to, honoring G-d).

Conversely, the second five are commandments that are between us and, well…us. These are the social commandments. No killing each other. No stealing each other or from each other. No bearing false witness on each other. And no adultery or lusting after another man’s wife. Those sins are there, not because they are immoral – after all, immorality is more of a G-d concept – but because they are anti-social. They involve taking something away from another person. Patriarchal or not, a man’s wife is considered his, and stealing her away from him is up there on the list of things that one must not do to another. Incest, or other forbidden relationships among mature and consenting adults, do not take anything from anyone else. They may offend G-d, but preventing offenses against G-d is not the purpose of the last five commandments; they are intended to prohibit the various way we can hurt each other.

Another insight worth sharing is that, by giving us the Ten Commandments on two tablets, five on each, G-d was suggesting a correlation between commandments of the same number on each tablet. Remember in grade school, when we used to be asked to match a word in the right column to the correct definition in the left column by drawing a line between them? Well the same principle would apply to the two columns of the Ten Commandments, except that the all of the lines would be perfectly horizontal, as the first commandment on one tablet would be matched to the first commandment on the second tablet. In other words, Commandments Nos. 1 and 6 are related, as are Nos. 2 and 7, Nos. 3 and 8, Nos. 4 and 9, and Nos. 5 and 10.

The relationship between the First and the Sixth Commandments is easy. G-d tells us that He is our G-d; he redeemed us from Egypt, and we are made in His image. Murder, however, involves destroying another person made in G-d’s image – the key factor that distinguishes murder from animal slaughter. Thus, it is because we are all made in G-d’s image that we may not murder another person.

How about Commandment No. 7 – adultery? This commandment is side-by-side with Commandment No. 2 – “thou shalt have no other gods, and shalt not worship idols.” The implications of this match-up are clear: G-d views us as being in an exclusive, monogamous relationship. For us to turn to other gods, to worship idols, is a betrayal of G-d’s love. Indeed, G-d even describes His reaction to such infidelity as that which one might expect from the husband of an unfaithful wife: “for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God.” Exodus, 20:5. On the human side of things, G-d similarly forbids adultery – perhaps because He is sensitive to the feelings of betrayal, and/or perhaps even because He is concerned that the trait of infidelity would not confine itself to human relationships, but would spill over into our relationship with G-d himself.

Finally: Commandment No. 10 – “thou shalt not covet.” This one horizontally matches up with Commandment No. 5 – “honor thy father and thy mother.” What’s the connection between the two?

Coveting indicates of a lack of satisfaction in one’s own lot, for one who is content does not covet that which belongs to another. Dissatisfaction itself reflects a lack of appreciation for what we have; we feel that we are entitled to more, that we have not received all that we could or should. The lesson or appreciation is one that we are taught by our parents, and by the commandment that we honor them.

As we discussed here, from the moment we are born our parents provide for us, and we naturally take it for granted. So we demand, insist, plead, cajole, and generally drive our parents crazy with all of our needs and wants. Torah’s commandment to honor our father and mother, forces us to to take a step back, and to recognize the enormous debt of gratitude that we owe our parents. It exposes our unflattering tendency to forget how much we are actually given, and trains us to develop our sense of appreciation and contentment. If fostered and honed properly, these psychological tools inculpate a sense of satisfaction with our own gifts and blessings, and inoculate us against the false allure of those enjoyed by our neighbor.

At the end of the day, it seems that the sexual mitzvot within the Ten Commandments are not intended to address our sexual natures at all. They are not included within the first tablet, among our obligations to G-d; and when they appear on the second tablet, they are all about not taking something from someone else, and respecting others – even when the power of our lust asserts itself.