If you had to sit in a room for a month and compile a top ten list of Judaism’s most important concepts, most people would probably come out with something that looks like the Ten Commandments.
We’d probably start with the notion that there is a Creator and not to betray faith in the Creator by taking God’s name lightly or praying to other deities. We’d all agree that humans should not kill other humans. Most of us would agree on the importance of observing Shabbos, which honors the Creator and the natural order of Creation, acknowledging the bounds of human creativity in space and time. We’d probably agree on the value of respecting our parents and honoring the people who raised us.
These laws are intuitive; they make sense – we understand why these are some of the most essential things the Creator has to say to humans.
But then there’s one that probably wouldn’t spring to mind for most people:
וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ. וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (5:18)
Coveting. Envy. Jealousy. Wanting.
Is warning us off jealousy one of the most important things God has to say to humanity?
It’s on the list, so we can conclude that the answer to that question is yes, and that we ought to consider why.
The destructiveness of murder and theft are obvious, as they utterly disregard the autonomy and integrity of other humans and their rights to life and property. But the destructiveness of envy and jealousy are deceptively subtle in comparison because it seems so harmless. It’s a victimless crime – who are you hurting?
Perhaps it’s precisely that line of thinking that allows it to slip under our radars stealthily, and we should be concerned because, in reality, there is a victim of jealousy, and you haven’t noticed because it isn’t someone else – it’s you.
Envy suffocates you and slowly poisons your soul. Anger and hatred are occasionally justified – some things should not be tolerated and require our outrage to prompt decisive action. We should hate Nazis, and we should get angry when they march in public and express their ugliness; we then need to send them scurrying back to the dark crevasses they crawled out of.
Our Sages allow a very narrow form of jealousy towards someone highly accomplished. But even then, our Sages only permit a positive and productive form of action-oriented jealousy, where you use it as fuel to motivate you to raise your game and match their efforts. Are those excellent qualities replicable? Practice them, and you, too, can have those qualities. The unspoken premise here is that our Sages take it as a given that you cannot expect to be worthy of an equal opportunity to participate in the accomplishment without putting in the same effort that someone else did. This conception does not allow for armchair envy and everyday jealousy; you cannot expect to achieve your targets without paying your dues and putting in the work.
On the other hand, simple jealousy is the ultimate manifestation of entitlement, laziness, and a scarcity mindset – that there’s not enough of something to go around, so if others have it, it means you can’t. It’s a mentality that creates a landscape of fear, and the world descends into a cutthroat competition of survival of the fittest, a vile manifestation of social Darwinism. It might be the nastiest emotion we can have!
But unless we’re invoking envy to do better, it isn’t just a dangerous sin; it’s a stupid sin as well because it’s one of the only ones you could never possibly enjoy. It’s a severe hidden drawback to how we live today, with unlimited information at our fingertips, stoking feelings of inadequacy and jealousy by comparing what we have with the thin slice we see of other people’s lives. All pain, no gain, and yet we wonder what the harm is!
You pass the test but compare yourself to the best student in class, without knowing they haven’t met their friends for six months. You work long and difficult hours and compare yourself to the guy in the neighborhood who just made a fortune without knowing that his firm is under investigation and he is in serious jeopardy. You marry a complete human with flaws but compare them to people on social media in the top 1% of looks, smarts, or wealth without seeing their multiple flaws. You buy a house and discover issues but compare it to the nicest house on the block without knowing that the foundation is weak and needs to be torn down. Does any of this sound uncomfortably familiar?
So sure, maybe we know that envy is terrible, but you can’t just change the way you feel, so what can we do, practically speaking?
Firstly, let’s read the words.
“Do not kill” and “Do not steal” are simple two-word instructions, and we understand that we are to apply them broadly and generally. Unlike those and several others, envy, the one that doesn’t spring to mind as quickly, is spelled out in explicit detail, with seven specific hypotheticals before the general rule.
Maybe it would be too hard to prohibit jealousy because we can’t just stop feeling the way we feel. But God doesn’t just tell us not to be jealous – God tells us how to avoid it entirely. Don’t be jealous of this in particular; don’t be jealous of that – בֵּית רֵעֶךָ / שָׂדֵהוּ / וְעַבְדּוֹ / וַאֲמָתוֹ / שׁוֹרוֹ / וַחֲמֹרוֹ – you can’t cherry-pick certain aspects of someone else’s life. To have what they have, you’d have to be them, so, as the Sfas Emes notes, if you are going to be jealous of someone, you must be willing to swap your entire life for theirs – וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ.
Or in other words, if you’re seeing someone’s highlight reel, remember that you can’t correctly judge the whole by a part.
But secondly, and more fundamentally, we need to reorganize how we see the world and remind ourselves that God’s blessings are not finite. There isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so it’s not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours and cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. His is his – אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – and yours is yours, and we need to respect that boundary down to the smallest detail scrupulously. God’s blessings are abundant, not scarce. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the practice of this law requires that you refine yourself to have no interest in what is not meant for you.
As our Sages guided us, who is wealthy? One who celebrates and takes joy in what he has – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ. One interpretation even inverts the plain reading, from celebrating what you have to celebrating what he has – בְּחֶלְקוֹ. We should take this sage wisdom to heart, kill the scarcity mindset, and cultivate an abundance mentality. Someone else’s prosperity and success don’t make your own any less likely, so be happy when someone else wins because yours is no further away.
So perhaps warning us against envy is one of the most important things God has to say to us; it might be the sin with the highest destructiveness to innocence ratio. It withholds you from your highest consciousness and prevents you from being you in all your fullness; it stops you from being happy and limits your ability to embrace your blessings.
So don’t look at your neighbor to see if you have as much as them; the only time you should look at what your neighbor has is to ensure they have enough.
No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is within everyone’s power not to want what they don’t have and to cheerfully put what they do have to good use.
While you can’t have everything you want, it’s such a blessing to want what you have.