There is an ancient fable that tells of a man lucky enough to get anything he wished--with the galling condition that his neighbor gets twice as much. He wishes for a beautiful house, only to watch his neighbor get a palatial mansion. He wishes for vast wealth, but his neighbor receives riches dwarfing his own. Finally, in bitter frustration, he wishes to be blinded in one eye. The moral is manifest: Better he should suffer a little and his neighbor suffer a lot, than he should profit a little and his neighbor profit a lot.
Once again, the insights of folklore and fable anticipate the findings of the sociologists and scientists. Studies show repeatedly that what we want is not more, but more than the other fellow. We are, all of us, subject to the corrosive peril of envy.
As La Rochefoucauld, an acute French observer of human nature, once said: It is not enough to succeed. One's friends must fail.
How often have we secretly, in the inner chambers of the heart, wished that others would fail because their success would bruise our ego, slow our career, or simply unsettle our ambition? How often have we clenched our teeth and pounded our fists over the good fortune of another? How many times have we nursed a secret viciousness as we smiled, patted someone on the back, and said, "Congratulations--I'm so happy for you"?
In the High Holiday liturgy, envy is called tzarut eyin--narrowness of vision. Envy is narrowness, being unable to recognize the legitimacy of others succeeding and being happy. Envy is seeing the world through the constricted vision of one's own desires alone.
Envy afflicts all of us, no matter how accomplished. I was recently told by a man who was endowing his alma mater with a million-dollar scholarship, "But I looked at what Bill Gates was doing, and I felt small." His accomplishments suddenly seemed negligible because his standard was the worth of someone else.
The success and good fortune of another becomes for many the invariable cause for their own unhappiness. All that is required to make us miserable is that somebody else is doing well. And there is, after all, a great deal of good fortune in this world.
At times, envy is an impulse to accomplishment. The Talmud advises that the jealousy of scholars increases wisdom. Of course, if envy leads you not to hate the other, but to improve yourself, wonderful. There is a spark lit by the keenness of competition that all of us recognize.
But more often, it unveils the black side of the soul. The black side of the soul is that part that cannot rejoice with a full heart because another is joyous, another is blessed, another has done well.
If we are free from the coils of envy, it can be a tremendous pleasure to witness the victories of others. Healthy hearts can be happy to discover that the sum total of human satisfaction has been upped a little bit because someone has done well. The absence of that feeling is a cause for sadness. It is nothing less than tragic when we are so eaten up with envy that another's triumph embitters us.
We are the most affluent and comfortable civilization humanity has known, but it does not drain the envy from our souls or the resentment at that which we lack from our hearts.
The paradigm for the conquest of envy in Judaism is the remarkable story of Moses. In the book of Numbers (11:26), Moses has had struggles over his leadership. Finally, having established his preeminence, someone runs to him and says, "Two men, Eldad and Medad, are prophesying in the camp!"
Just as Moses has established his authority, two young upstarts begin to prophesy on their own, breaking the hold he has on the people. Moses' attendant Joshua (who is soon to succeed him) cries out in fury, "My lord Moses, stop them!"
Moses' response is classic: "Joshua," he said, "are you upset on my account? Would that all of God's people were prophets, and God poured out His spirit on each of them."
Moses recognizes that the success of another does not diminish him. Quite the reverse: As the goodness and holiness of the people is elevated, he is elevated too.
Who was the envious poet who wrote about "desiring this man's art and that man's scope"? Shakespeare. Even the greatest among us will always find something more appealing in what another is or what another has. To appreciate it, and not covet it, is the prescription for a sane soul, and a tranquil heart. code for ask the buttons