In my baby book, my mother recorded an apocryphal story about me: sometimes when she wanted a kiss from me, I refused. She learned to ask my older sisters for one, and suddenly I would come running, kiss at the ready. If my sisters were doing it, I didn’t want to be left out… In many ways, this story has echoed throughout my life. Too often what others do, I want to do, too.
This month, my Mussar study group has been grappling with envy. It seems for each of us, we have reached a place of discomfort we’ve never shared with each other before. I was comforted somewhat to be sharing this with people I respect and admire, to recognize that I am not alone. And I was particularly struck by the teaching that, in reality, a better name for the first book of the Torah is not Beresheit (in Hebrew) or Genesis, but rather the Book of Envy. Eve wants something from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She has been told she can’t have it, but she wants it. Cain wants his offering accepted as well as his brother Abel’s, without having to offer his most choice crops. Sarah is envious of Hagar and her baby. Jacob wants Esau’s birthright and father’s blessing. Rachel wants the children Leah has while Leah wants the love Rachel has. Joseph’s brothers have been wrought to an envious state by their father’s favoritism of their baby brother. This trait drives them all to behave in less than loving ways, less than honest ways, less than holy ways.
These stories of our ancestors take up a large chunk of the first book. And yet, almost at the beginning, God tells us what we must do. God tells Cain, “‘Why are you so worked up? And why is your face fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door; and seeks you, but still you can rule over it’” (Gen. 4:7). Sin in the form of envy may be right there if your brother, sister, friend beats you, but YOU can still rule over it. It’s still your choice. Yours. No one else’s. Yours.
Rabbi Elazar Hakapor in Pirkei Avot (4:21) teaches us that “Jealousy (envy), desire, and the pursuit of honor remove a person from the world.” What does that mean? When someone acts on their envy, or acts out of their envy, or even speaks or feels from their envy, they are well on their way to alienating others or alienating themselves from others. I have a friend who, upon hearing about the big, expensive, world exploring vacations of her acquaintances, experiences a few moments of pain about the “lesser” trips her family can afford. It means that she withdraws from sharing the other’s joy and excitement. It may cause her to pull away, or the acquaintance might feel what could be perceived as disinterest or even raining (drizzling really) on their parade. Envy can make us pull away from our community.
Envy is not a healthy state of mind, nor of body. The ancients believed it ate our insides, rotted our bones while we were alive, and even in death. So if Ezekiel’s vision of a resurrection of our dry bones (Ez. 37) were ever to come true, those whose bones had rotted would miss the opportunity. Even if Ezekiel were wrong and if the ancients were wrong about the rotting of bones being reserved only for the envious, the truth of envy eating away at us and having an effect on our physical health cannot be pushed aside. Everything we know about the physical effects of stress on our lives tells us this is true. Envy can lead us to an early grave.
I knew a woman in my grandparents’ generation who epitomized envy: she never wanted people to have more than she did and she craved respect and acknowledgement for what she had. She was even jealous of her daughters for taking a portion of their father’s attention away from her. She lived a pretty long life. But she was not beloved, except maybe by her husband. He, however, spent as much time away from their house as he could. Envy can lead us to isolation.
The rabbis divided envy into two broad categories: envy of material possessions and of spiritual achievements. Of course, given the sources, the latter was worse than the former. It’s bad enough to begrudge someone their earthly possessions (and make no mistake about it, it’s not good), but to begrudge someone their spiritual gifts is much worse.
As I have spent the month thinking about the way envy burrows into my soul, I’ve found it is a mix of the two. I am envious of people who have the job(s) I think I want. I am envious of some people’s relationships—with their sisters or their children, for example. I am envious when people choose to go to someone else’s workshop instead of mine, unless I am sure that they are a better teacher than I am (at which point I am envious that I don’t get to go to their workshop and am there at my own: couldn’t we schedule differently??). I am not envious of someone being a better teacher—I truly admire that and want nothing more than to learn from them. I am not envious of people having more than I have. I have plenty, more than I need. But I am envious of people being more popular, or harder working, or doing important work in the world while I judge myself next to them and find myself lacking.
I have come to accept that for some of the jobs I thought I wanted, I may not have the energy to do them as well as the people who have them. Or I may not have the temperament, or current mix of middot to make that job a good fit for me. When I acknowledge that it probably really is all for the good, I can relax.
Who is wealthy? we are asked in Pirkei Avot (4:1). Ben Zoma answers his own question: those who are happy with what they have. When we want what others have, even if we have financial success, it eats at us, rots those bones, diminishes our essence. If we are not satisfied, content with what we have, we will always seek for more, and dislike those who have it.
This week’s Torah portion is Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19), in which God instructs Moses to ask the Israelites to give of themselves to build a sanctuary so that God will dwell among us. What follows is a long description of what that sanctuary must look like: the architect and interior designer laid out clear plans, down to the curtains and woodwork. I wonder if the giving of personal belongings was to bring us to a state of equality that would then be shared in the glory of the mishkan (tabernacle). Or was it a bidding war? One midrash claims that the leaders of the tribes waited to see what people gave, rather than being the leaders in giving, ostensibly so that they could make up whatever shortfall there might be. It turned out that everyone gave more than expected and the mishkan builders were overwhelmed with materials, and their (the leaders’) gifts were not needed. Was that a lack of generosity, or the unfulfilled desire to be the heroes at the end? I wonder if the wall of the mishkan contained a Donor Wall, listing everyone’s name, like the plaques that are so ubiquitous in synagogues today, or whether there were too many names to list, or whether no one on the building committee kept track of whom to thank.
How much recognition did the people need? How envious was any one family of what another family gave and was seen giving? Was there a desire to stir some competition for the giving? (“See how much those people gave? We have to give at least that much!”) Envy does have a positive side, in cases of friendly competition, helping us strive to be as good as, as caring as, as kind as, as learned as whomever we envy.
In my study of Mussar, I realized that this is the first time I have ever delved into this middah/character trait as a study. I wonder about the avoidance, or delay: did our teachers in this course of study know that we had to work on some of the “easier” ones (anger, greed, laziness, impatience, arrogance!), before we could even imagine being able to look at this particular shadow?
Or maybe it’s just me: as my mother framed her tale of my early exhibits of envy, she clearly used the friendly competition model to teach me to be affectionate even when I was not in the mood. I did not have the tools to change yet. Never too late. As God told Cain, sin is crouching at the door, but it’s within my control to turn it away. Practice, practice, practice.
 Mussar is the Jewish psychospiritual practice of refining our character traits so that we can be the best people we can be, to be of service to …God, the community, truth, beauty and justice.
 Middot is the plural of middah, or character trait.
Marian Blanton says
…and at the end of life. we envy those whose strength and vigor allow them still to engage boldly with LIFE.
Meredith Cahn says
Marian, you might want to get hold of a couple of books – Wise Aging by Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal, and Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older by Dayle Friedman. Both of them discuss the challenges and opportunities for aging… the opportunities for spiritual growth and insights, if one chooses to take them; the ways to use humor and gratitude (and other mussar teachings)… I’ve found both of these books inspiring and plan to use them to teach from with my friends at Spring Lake Village, at the JCC in Santa Rosa, and to form a group with my peers who are just entering this older stage of our lives…
You are a wonderful person to study Mussar with as you will dive deep into your own awareness’ making others more open and willing to look at theirs. Very powerful! Thank you for opening my eyes and thoughts to Envy. I will ponder it more closely in the days to come.
Meredith Cahn says
Thank you, Alaina.