I have a confession to make: I struggle with envy.
I am aware that I am not alone in this, but it does not assuage my conscience. I repeat Ben Zoma’s dictum from Ethics of the Fathers (4:1): “Who is wealthy? The one who is content with his portion” — as a daily mantra, but that too, doesn’t fully solve the problem. I embrace mindfulness and gratitude as a way of living, and can provide a long and truthful list of the blessings in my life. Yet envy, and her cousin, the green-eyed monster, seem to skulk in the shadows, waiting to taunt me.
Envy can be a powerfully positive tool. If I am envious of someone’s wisdom or scholarship, I can go and learn more. If I am envious of someone’s success, I could study the path they have taken and follow it. If I am envious of someone’s kindness, grace, sensitivity or resilience, then I can emulate it. On the other hand, envy can also lead us into a roiling mess of distorted thinking, very negative and painful emotions, and, at worst, destructive behaviors.
At first glance, the complaint of Korach and his congregation in Numbers 16:3 seems both well-placed and sincerely motivated: “You have enough! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” We are next-in-line, we are first-borns, we are living with Divine revelation and prophecy, and we are all holy, so why do you and Aaron, your brother, get all the privilege? We too want to be priests and to be able to serve God!
To understand what Korach and his cabal were really saying, however, we need to take a closer look at the language of what they said and how they said. Vayikahalu, the first word of verse 3, is often translated as “they congregated” or “they combined.” A kahal or, in more modern parlance, a kehilla, is a large group that comes together for a common purpose. Or “yourselves.” They accuse Moses and Aaron of self-aggrandizement and greed: “Why do you (plural) raise yourselves over the Congregation of God?” Keep in mind that these accusations are being lobbed at Moses — the man deemed by God to be most humble, the man who didn’t want the job of leader — and Aaron, the man who loved and pursued peace and was only too happy to be the spokesperson for his far-more-famous brother. Everything the two brothers have — prophecy, roles, golden vestments, and special status — comes from God. They know it, and, through the text, we know it.
Moses throws down potent gauntlet in chapter 16:6-7: All of you challengers will offer up ketoret, the incense. The offering that is accepted is the one God chooses. The unspoken flip side to this is that the others will die. Moses finishes with the same words that Korach used to begin: “You have too much, sons of Levi.” You, Levi, the already-holy tribe, have enough. And enough is enough.
In Judaism, motivation is critical; so much so that, if one intends to do a mitzvah but is thwarted by circumstances beyond their control, it is considered as if the mitzvah were done. On the other hand, the prophets railed against sacrifices that were brought by rote and not backed up with either good intentions or good deeds. What you say or do is only part of the process; what you think, feel or mean is what completes the picture. From Moses’ words, God’s response and the repercussions to Korach and his group — the ground opening up and swallowing some, fire burning others and death to all — it is clear that their congregation and their motivation was unforgivably wrong.
Korach’s envy was fueled by jealousy. Jealousy comes from the conviction that someone else has what should be yours; there is a zero-sum game and you have lost. This kind of envy poisons and there is no antidote because it is based on both deep insecurity and faulty thinking. In most scenarios, I have what I have for two basic reasons: either I have earned it or someone — or some Divine Being — has given it to me. This truth applies to everyone. Internalizing this truth is the essence of being “content with one’s portion” as well as interpersonal harmony.
I continue to grapple with envy. I wish that I had her job, her figure, their ease of having children, I feel that it’s not fair that everyone else is independently mobile while I live with vision impairment. I wonder what my life would be like if I had “yichus” or connections that others seem to have. Some days it’s a pity party, and I’m the guest of honor. However, I have antidotes: a keen awareness of what I have, what I have earned and what I have been given.
The mishnaic version of the serenity prayers tells me that I don’t have to finish the task, but I do have to keep at it. Finally, there is an omnipresent awareness of the Divine in the world and that there are a lot of things that I cannot control nor understand, and the guiding belief that there is a Plan. I may not be a prophet or a priest, but if I can be the best me there is with what I have and what I have been given, then that is enough. Enough is good. Enough is enough.