Envy

From: Moshe

Dear Rabbi,

I find that I am very prone to envy – I am often envious of what others have and I want it too. Could you share some thoughts that might help me control this tendency of mine? Thanks.

Dear Moshe,

Envy is a very negative trait as far as Torah teachings are concerned so it’s good that you are aware of this and want to control it.

The Sages taught (Avot 4:27) that envy is one of the three attributes which “take one out of this world”, meaning it destroys a person’s life. This is because a person can become so consumed with envy that it can actually cause him to commit the most heinous of crimes. And even short of transgressing in such extreme ways, the life of one embroiled in envy is bitter and unsatisfying. He literally becomes a no-life.

Our Sages also noted (see Rashi, Nu. 15:39 from Tanchuma 15), “The eye beholds, the heart desires”. This refers to the way in which people tend to look around to see what others have, and this causes them to want to have the same or more than what they see that others have. This then catalyzes a vicious cycle where others in turn want to outdo those who have outdone them, etc. Obviously, this detrimental cycle enslaves one to changing fashions and fads, wasting money, time and distracting one from what’s truly important in life.

In addition, this tendency to look at “what’s on others’ plates” is tantamount to denying G‑d because everyone’s portion in life is determined by G‑d for reasons known only to Him. Instead of enjoying one’s own divinely-given portion, an envious person will constantly be eying other people’s portions wondering why they (seem to) have more than him, questioning G‑d’s ultimate justice.

What’s interesting about this is that even what we think we do have is not really ours. It’s a deposit of G‑d in our possession. Today it’s here; tomorrow it’s gone. How can we allow ourselves to desire what others have under the delusion that it could remain ours when even what’s currently in our possession is temporary and fleeting?

Our sources discuss the self-damaging nature of envy and covetousness with the following analogy: Jealousy and Envy were going on the way. They encountered a king who offered, “Whatever one of you requests I’ll grant, and the other will get double that.” Jealousy refrained from making a request lest Envy get more. Envy refused to request since it wouldn’t get all the king gave. Finally, Envy coerced Jealousy to go first. Jealousy requested, “Let the king blind only one of my eyes…”

We see from here that these attributes actually cause us to forgo or forfeit what we already have, preferring to have nothing or even to suffer, as long as others will not have more than us. Thus envy is a most irrational and degenerate of attributes.

There’s one exception of “positive” envy that’s discussed in Jewish sources called “kinat sofrim” or competition among Torah scholars that is actually praised by the Sages (Baba Batra 21a) because it results in increased Torah knowledge. This is not limited to Torah study though, but is rather understood to apply to all areas of spiritual improvement and refinement. One is allowed to be, and perhaps even encouraged (with the proper competitive spirit), to be aware of others’ ethical and spiritual achievements for the purpose of emulating or even “outdoing” them. This type of envy leads individuals, and thereby society, to the elevation and perfection that G‑d desires of us.

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