Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Dealing with Envy

Yitro

One of the great causes of anguish is envy. When you measure your success and value based on what you have, it is very difficult to be happy and content, since there will always be those who have more and therefore imply that you are not worth that much.

How do you combat this tendency? How can you be happy with your life when you see —if not personally, on Facebook or Instagram— the successes and happiness that others have and that elude you?

And there must be a way to do it. The Ten Commandments that we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro [1], clearly tell us not to covet. If G-d tells us not to covet, there must be a way that we can put it into practice. How is it done?

Perhaps the key is to be found in the commandment itself: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his bull, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” [2]

When you analyze the verse, a rather obvious question comes to mind: since it concludes that one should not covet “all that belongs to your neighbor,” that is, one should not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor, why list specifics? Wouldn’t they already be included in “all that belongs to your neighbor”?

One explanation I heard a long time ago [3] is that the way to stop envying someone for something they have is to put things in perspective. Would you like to have everything they have? Really? Yes, what you see may be enviable, but what do you know about the things in the enviable person’s life that you cannot see? 

I can imagine how many people were jealous of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter, until they saw what happened to him as a result of it…

There are, in fact, two kinds of envy, one positive and one negative. 

The envy that pushes you to outdo yourself in order to achieve and have the same thing you admire in someone else is fine. “Jealousy among the wise increases wisdom,” says the Talmud. [4] The envy that crushes you because you feel like a failure because you are not like so-and-so who has so much success in life, is not only a sin, it is foolish. Everyone has what they need in order to fulfill their mission in life. 

I am reminded of an anecdote told by SMR who was in prison serving an unjust punishment and every day would receive bags of mail containing letters of support from all over the world.

There were inmates who did not receive mail and they were jealous of him because of it. It is not a good idea to foster envy in prison. So one day he came up with a solution. When it was time for the mail to be distributed, SMR took the whole bag of his mail and gave it to the “jealous” inmate.  “Here,” he said. “Take my mail. I’m sick and tired of all the mail.” The “jealous” inmate was happy and started opening the letters. In a few minutes his jealousy disappeared. All the letters were written in Yiddish or Hebrew and he didn’t understand a word. What good is a mailbag full of letters written in a language he doesn’t understand?

The same applies to every aspect of life. Everyone gets their “mail”, in their language,  according to their needs. It is of little use to have something that does not serve you or for a price you are not willing to pay.

So this week’s tool is: if you see that someone has something you don’t have, don’t lose sleep over it. They also have things in their lives that you don’t want, and you have things that someone else doesn’t have. Everyone has what they really need. If you don’t have what you like, try liking what you have.

———

  1. Exodus 18:1- 20:23
  2. Exodus 20:14
  3. Quoted very often. I am still searching for the primary source for this explanation.
  4. Bava Batra 21a
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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