middot frugality besorah covetousness and contentment

covetousness and contentment

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-ishopKeep your lives free from the love of money; and be satisfied with what you have; for God himself has said, “I will never fail you or abandon you.” Hebrews 13:5 CJB

My comments on frugality earlier this year emphasized the limited resources of our planet and the mitzah of sharing more with those in need. These are worthy reasons to practice frugality and be free from the love of money, of course, but now I’d like to consider the root of frugality, which is contentment, or being satisfied with what we already have, so that we’re not constantly coveting more.

Contentment is hard to maintain in today’s consumerist society. In fact, if too many people practiced contentment it would pose a threat to the global economy, which needs everyone to keep consuming more and more for the whole system to work properly. But most people cooperate with this economic set-up because we are so ready to want what we don’t have.

The old-fashioned word “coveting” describes this desire. It appears in the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet . . .” or, in Hebrew lo tachmod, based on the root chamad. In other contexts chamad means “pleasant” or “desirable,” but it becomes a negative term when it describes a drive for things that we don’t have or, as in the commandment, cannot rightfully have. Because of the pleasantness implied in coveting, however, this commandment is difficult to keep. So, how do we do it?

First, we seek freedom from covetousness not just as a means to an end, but as something more. We don’t practice frugality only to promote conservation or tzedakah, but, as with all Ten Commandments, to express and maintain our covenant relationship with Hashem. Frugality, according to Hebrews, arises from being satisfied with what we have, because what we have is the Lord himself. No matter what else might be missing in our lives, we have the God who said, “I will never fail you or abandon you.”

Covetousness, then, is the opposite of treasuring our union with Messiah.

It is a symptom of not living in union with him, as we seek to fill our inward emptiness with outward things. And it is also a cause of our not living in union with him. As we give ourselves to seeking all the great stuff out there—our neighbor’s house, “his male or female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor,” or even his wife—we forget all about seeking the Lord.

Here’s the paradox: the key to frugality, which is the opposite of covetousness, is to covet the Lord himself. David describes this godly covetousness in Psalm 63 (CJB): “O God, you are my God; I will seek you eagerly. My heart thirsts for you, my body longs for you in a land parched and exhausted, where no water can be found.”  

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