Do Not Be Jealous of Riches; Envy Righteousness and Pursue It

Money, power, position.

The fervent desire for and pursuit of these things has defined much of human history. Our lust and need of these things, lays at the foundation of our behavior as individuals and nations. The pursuit of these things has sometimes resulted in the best of what the world offers, and, more often, the worst. Men who have lusted for these things have built transcontinental railways; they have built libraries, museums and hospitals. They have also destroyed countless lives.

The pursuit of these things seems to exemplify our greatest strengths when, in fact, they often betray our greatest frailties. So often, the fire that burns within us, driving our lust for money or power or position, is the emotion that cries out “me, me, me!” to the exclusion of all others. It is jealousy. Jealousy makes us want these things and want them to the exclusion of others having them as well.

Jealousy is the terror of seeing someone achieve more than us. In the possessions or status or position of another, we see not the glory of their achievement but only our own shortcomings. But rather than acknowledging this and dedicating ourselves to addressing those shortcomings, we demean and diminish others, we “bring them down” rather than “raise ourselves up”.

Sometimes our jealousy festers in our thoughts and souls, souring only ourselves. Other times, it drives us to commit unspeakable acts. History’s first murder was the direct result of jealousy. When God accepted Abel’s offer, Cain became mad with jealousy and killed his brother. When Joseph was given his coat of many colors, his brothers became jealous and threw him in a pit.

We look at these Biblical examples and too often we comfort ourselves with the “broad distance” between the primal emotions that prompted such horrible acts and our own feelings of jealousy. After all, we live in a time when “wanting things” is a sign of our good sense. But is wanting these things good sense? Is the gap really that large?

We should ask ourselves, what would we be willing to do – in our historic moment of vast wealth, travel, fame, and celebrity – to enjoy a bigger “piece” of the pie? What would we do to make sure others don’t get that bigger piece?

In Parashat Vayishlach, we are informed that, “Yaakov set up a monument over her grave; that is the monument of Rachel’s grave to this day.” Once again, the construction of a Biblical phrase forces us to look more closely at its meaning. That Yaakov “set up a monument over her grave” seems to tell us all we need to know so why in the next pasuk are we informed, “…the monument of Rachel’s grave to this day”?  

In parsing out the importance of this repetition, we can also glean profound insights into how the drive that engenders the destructive emotion of jealousy can also propel the more noble feeling of envy. As we observe the yahrzeit of my grandfather, Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran on 14th Kislev, his explanation on a remarkable passage in Masechet Shabbat [152b] shows us the way.

The Talmud relates of some workers digging on land belonging to Rav Nachman. In their labors, they happened upon a grave, disturbing the dead man’s peace. They were frightened by the man’s shriek from within the grave and, running in fear, went to inform Rav Nachman that, “a deceased man scolded us!” Hearing this news, Rav Nachman hurried with the workers to the grave. There, he leaned toward the grave and inquired as to the deceased man’s name.

“I am Achai son of Yoshiya.”

Rav Nachman looked back at the cowering workmen and then faced the grave. “Didn’t Rav Meri teach that even the bodies of the tzadikim will disintegrate in their graves?” he asked. “How is it that your body did not disintegrate?”

“Who is Rav Meri? I don’t know who he is.”

“You may not know who Rav Meri is but surely you are familiar with Koheleth, ‘…and the dust returns to the earth as it was.’ (12:2)

“Whoever taught you the posuk from Koheleth clearly did not teach you the posuk from Mishlei, ‘U’rkav atzamot – the rotting of the bones – kin’aa – jealousy.’ (14:30) That is, he who lives with jealousy in his life will turn to dust when he dies, but he who bears no jealousy, his bones will not disintegrate.

“Now, the posuk in Koheleth speaks to most people who conduct their lives driven by jealousy but when I was alive, I did not bear jealousy in my heart and so my bones did not rot.”

Rav Nachum was much impressed with the explanation. Indeed, the Talmud concludes the passage with him reaching out and touching Achia’s body - chaziye d’is bei meshasha and finding that it was whole; even the flesh had not rotted.

We know from our own experience that jealousy eats at the essence of our being. Thinkers, religious and otherwise, have noted its destructive, corrosive influence through the ages. William Penn wrote that, “The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.

Jealousy not only stokes our own wants but also seeks to tear down the goals and achievements of others. A story speaks to this very thing.  A jealous man was once given a most generous offer – “Make whatever wish you want and it will be granted. However, whatever you wish for, your neighbor will get twice as much.”

This offer created turmoil in the man. Yes, he could receive great riches but in doing so his neighbor would get even more! That was unacceptable to him. What would he do? Finally, he hit upon the perfect thing. “Take out one of my eyes,” he demanded, preferring to suffer – and double his neighbor’s suffering – than to profit and thereby double his neighbor’s profit.

Wanting is a treacherous, relentless human drive that leads to jealousy. It also has the potential to lead to a similar but profoundly different emotion – envy.

My grandfather taught that envy is the positive side to jealousy. When we are jealous, we want things we should not. Envy is to be desirous of the things we should want. That is, it is possible to be envious of a fellow’s kindness, his sensitivity, his decency, knowledge and diligence. In other words, to envy these positive attributes, we might be motivated to attain those same positive attributes for ourselves. That type of envy, may well enhance one’s behavior and serve as a motivator for self-improvement.

“Let not your heart envy sinners.” (Mishlei 23:17) Don’t be jealous of the wicked who seem to prosper. Don’t be tempted to follow in their footsteps, but rather Mishlei teaches, be envious of the righteous, of those “Who fear HaShem”.

Such envy will enhance one’s life and midos. It is to be commended. That is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic expression, kina’as soferim tarbe chochma – Envy of the wise shall increase wisdom.

It is with this wise perspective and understanding of the nuance between jealousy and envy, that my grandfather turned his attention to the posuk, “Yaakov set up a monument over her grave” – this matzeva, this monument, is set on her actual burial place. Of course, what’s the point? Because it is about Rachel that the Torah tells us that (after seeing that she did not bear children to Yaakov), “… Rachel became envious of her sister.” It is because of this that we may have presumed that she became as the “dust of the earth”. But if that were so then the monument Yaakov erected stands over nothing but a clump of earth. But the posuk repeats, “it is matzevas kevuras Rachel – the grave containing the actual remains of Rachel; not mere clumps of earth. Her grave holds her actual body. This is actually her place of burial. Her bones did not rot ad ha’yom ha’zeh – until this very day.

She felt the envy of Mishlei not the jealousy of Kohelet.

Koheleth suggests she would have turned to dust. But Mishlei gives us the insight. She was envious, envious of her sister’s good deeds! She had the type of envy that increases good in the world. As Rashi states in Vayetze, “She was envious of Leah’s good deeds. She said, ‘were she not more righteous than me, she wouldn’t be privileged to have so many children.’”  

She recognized that the other attained goodness and riches because of their ma’asim tovim. Such kina’a is not only permitted, it is to be praised. It is a kina’a that results in good things. We are human. We want things. So long as we want the right things we bring honor to ourselves and our souls. Wanting the wrong things turns our souls to dust, long before our bodies.

It is a distinction my grandfather elucidated with great wisdom and sensitivity.

Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon