Last week we read the Ten Commandments in the annual Torah cycle. The last one warns us not to have envy, to covet another's wife or house, servants, animals or anything else. This was at a time when we had just left slavery and had little to own, yet even so, it would not take much to believe that someone else has it better and has what should rightfully be ours.
By ending on this note, the commandments gives envy a special and particularly sordid status among biblical transgressions, perhaps because it's a foundational emotion that can trigger other destructive behaviors mentioned in the commandments. We need to keep our jealousy in check since such intense and passionate feelings of dissatisfaction with what one has can lead to any number of crimes: infidelity, thievery, and possibly murder. Even if such rash feelings don't lead to immoral behavior, they can certainly lead to insecurity, self-doubt and depression.
This explains why Ethics of the Fathers warns that "Jealousy, lust and honor drive a person from this world" (4:21). This is not meant literally but can have literal implications. Leaving this world implies living a life which is not living; eating oneself alive with harmful thoughts can prove tortuous and unhealthy. In the book of Isaiah, chapter 11, the prophet offers a picture of serenity predicated on siblings without rivalry. A world without envy would be a very great world indeed.
A day after standing in the synagogue having these commandments read out loud and hearing the repetitive beat of "Do not covet this and that and also this," I was surprised to find an article on jealousy in The New York Times' Sunday Book Review. Writer Sarah Manguso shared how difficult professional jealousy is for her as a writer. She might read a review and instantly turn the beauty of the writing into a criticism of herself: "Could I offer the world something so useful and beautiful?" She contends that writers experience many forms of jealousy:
Writers are known to suffer a few categories of envy. There is envy of money, of accolades, of publication in this or that place. There is envy of profligacy and of well-mannered scarcity. There is envy of accomplishment and of potential. There is envy of great writing and envy of those who, despite not being great, seem immune to self-doubt. And all of these envies are simply a feeling that is shorthand for one thought: 'He doesn't deserve that...but I might.
Well, we must let this author know that in Jewish law, her envy is actually allowed. Envy of wisdom is not only permitted, it is encouraged as a stimulant to greater creativity and discipline. The Talmudic phrase above teaches its readers that the jealousy of scholars for scholarship is legitimate and grows wisdom. This does not mean that it is a painless emotion, quite the opposite. Intellectual smallness and self-deprecation in the face of greatness can lead to intimidation and paralysis. But it can also be exceptionally motivating, in large part perhaps because it is abstract. I might look at a mansion and think I could never own it, but I might not limit knowledge because it is, in essence, limitless.
Manguso closes her essay with the recognition that admitting envy is humbling. "And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor." In this admission, Manguso helps us understand why the jealousy of scholars is permitted. It creates in us three competing and important emotions: the humility to know we are witness to something extraordinary, the integrity and wonder to praise it and the drive to match it by working harder, better and smarter.
Jealousy in these instances goes outside the boundary of two individuals. When scientists or physicians compete to be the first and best for a solution or a cure, we all benefit. When teachers and scholars vie for academic recognition, they produce more. When businesses try to upstage each other, they often pass on the benefits to their customers.
Every profession and stage of life has its own boutique jealousies. What kind of jealousy do you commonly experience? This can make for interesting dinner table conversation and a good dose of self-reflection and an extra bit of humility. Ask yourself in a quiet hour: How can I translate the negative emotion of envy into the positive state of inspiration to be more and do more?