We all know the 7th commandment, though we may not all honor it. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” No shades of meaning there. No loopholes. Don’t do it.
But commandment number 10? What exactly does “covet” mean anyway? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
verb (used with object)
to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others: to covet another’s property.
to wish for, especially eagerly: He won the prize they all coveted.
verb (used without object)
to have an inordinate or wrongful desire.
1175–1225; Middle English coveiten < Anglo-French coveiter, Old French coveit ( i ) er < Vulgar Latin *cupidiētāre, verbal derivative of *cupidiētās, for Latin cupititās cupidity
Vulgar for cupidity?
Hmm…Clearly, coveting is a mental, not physical, action like its commandment counterpart “Lucky Number Seven” (craps). So, surely who will know when we are coveting (besides God of course)? What are we to do with the wanting and wishing that stirs our souls? Can we control it? God seems to be telling us to try our best, be grateful for what is ours, do not want what others have. Easier said than done. Makes sense coveting made it on God’s top ten list.
But what happens when a gray, fuzzy line is crossed between covet and commit? Those small, seemingly harmless, yet insidious actions. Lingering hugs or pats on inappropriate body parts from a friend’s spouse. Touchless dancing at a party with married members of the opposite sex. Are these considered cheating? Crossing into dangerous number seven territory? You be the judge.
I remember my grandma telling me that some of her friends’ husbands found her attractive. Not hard to believe. Young, black and white honeymoon photos on Miami Beach look more like Greta Garbo than Grandma, posing like a ballerina against a palm tree. Her long lean legs perched in third position, hip pressed against the tree, accentuating voluptuous curves shown off by her old-fashioned swimsuit. One long arm circling the trunk, as if she and the tree were dancing. Her porcelain face framed by a dark, shining coif with almond-shaped eyes and a wide painted smile finish the picture.
Grandma was glamour and beauty, retro classic style. She and my grandfather were ballroom dancers, competing in hotels and nightclubs all along the east coast. So no wonder she attracted attention. But how did she know, I wanted to know, that other men thought she was pretty? Well, they flat out told her for one thing.
“Carl, you are the luckiest S.O.B. this side of the boardwalk,” a friend declared to my grandfather during a holiday in Atlantic City. Grandma was in earshot.
“Sylvia, you take my breath away,” another of their friends remarked when he cut in to Carl and Sylvia’s fox trot at a wedding they all attended. Grandma said she just laughed, told him his own wife was quite a beauty, and trotted right along.
But there were other times, Grandma said, when the wanting tipped the scales. At my aunt’s wedding, Grandma’s least favorite memory was dancing with her brother-in-law Charles, who let his hand fall from her waist to her hip, then her backside and let it rest there. When she tried to move his hand upward, he resisted and began pinching her flesh. She squirreled out of his grip and fled back to Grandpa, breathless and speechless. She never let on to Grandpa about what happened, and never danced with Charles again.
There was another time when a friend’s husband tried to kiss Grandma in a car, though she never explained why they had been traveling together. I’m not sure why Grandma told me those stories, but I feel like they were part of her life lessons to me. She always said marriage was not the “white wedding” but the work you put into it. My own parents had gotten divorced and remarried, so I was looking for a guide to healthy, long-lasting relationships. My grandparents were married for 65 year. A long time to weather together. Certainly they had ups and downs. Had either of them ever coveted? I wish I knew for sure, but I suspect yes. Cheated? I guess that depends on your definition.
I remember a family affair at my grandparents’ club when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My handsome uncle was there, who everyone compared to Tom Selleck, with his wife, who everyone compared to Bette Midler. During dinner at one point, I noticed my uncle’s hand on a strange woman’s knee. He left it there, rubbing occasionally, in plain view, at least of everyone on the opposite side of the table from him. He was flanked by the strange woman on one side and my aunt on his other. Was I the only one who thought this odd?
I also remember being in my stepfather’s house after my mom had remarried, and family friend Becky stopping by often after school when mom was at work. Stepdad kept strange hours, but everything about him was strange. He’d be tinkering around the kitchen or the backyard with frizzy, heavily made-up Becky over his shoulder, waving a wine glass and squawking about this and that. Sometimes they’d disappear. Where was her husband? Why was she there? Was I the only one who thought this odd? Inappropriate?
In my own experience as a married woman, I’ve has some strange incidences of coveting by married men. A lonely neighbor used to stop by with his two boys under the guise of seeking out my daughters to play. He’d saunter inside and make himself comfortable in the kitchen while I tended to chores, making chitchat for 15 minutes or so until I worked up the courage to make up an excuse for his leaving.
In another unlikely scenario, a friend’s husband repaid my condolence hug at his father’s shiva with a pat on my rear. Granted, it was more of a pool party than a traditional shiva where you mourn the recently departed. As our kids splashed and dived, the mourning son waved a glass of vodka around, entertaining guests from an inside bar that opened onto a beautiful patio.
Harmless? You decide. Think about the times an alarm went off in your mind. When the picture just wasn’t right. Did you like the attention? Maybe. And just maybe G-d was onto something with that tenth commandment. After all, we’re only human.