‘The jealousy of scholars increases wisdom.” (Talmud Bava Bathra 21a.)
Several years ago, the eminent scholar David Weiss Halivni told his Talmud seminar a story to illustrate this proverb. His office at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he explained to us, was across from the office of the renowned scholar, his teacher Saul Lieberman. As a result each could see at what time the other turned off his light to go to bed. For years, he said, they had an unspoken competition: Whoever turned his light off first had studied fewer hours, and so “lost.” As a result, said Halivni, he learned far more than if left to his own devices.
We know that people will exercise more, work harder, give more, if challenged by the presence of another. The key is to compete in doing things that are worthy. Competition alone is value neutral — it depends what skills are being sharpened and what ends are being advanced.
The Talmud assumes that competition will produce more wisdom, not more widgets. With all the talk about the importance of competition, we must remember that you can compete for almost anything. How inspiring to look across to see if the light of Torah learning is on — that is the capitalism of knowledge. Such devotion might even trickle down.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at www.facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.