Healthy Jealousy

Thursday, 8 December, 2016 - 11:01 pm

Virtually all humans suffer from the temptations of jealousy.  To not be jealous is to not be interested in a better life. Of course, the definition of better can vary from person to person and from day to day.

Yet, we all recognize that jealousy is an unhealthy trait. It’s something the Torah warns us strongly about in the Ten Commandments. You’ve certainly heard stories – or shared experiences – where jealousy was the catalyst for something much worse. It’s a slippery slope. Even if you don’t act upon it, your jealousy will lead you into a moral and emotional descent.

Judaism has long preached that we must embrace the lot we have been given by Almighty G-d. “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot,” says the Talmud. This leads to true happiness. Chasing after what someone else has – aside from the damage it causes – is denying myself the opportunities and purpose that G-d has in mind for me.

Which leads me to a troubling verse in this week’s parsha, Veyetze.  After Yaakov’s marriage to Leah and Rachel, Leah gives birth to four children. Rachel, meanwhile, is childless. The Torah reports, “And Rachel saw that she had not borne any children to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister.”

We are already familiar with Rachel. She is the selfless and sensitive sister who helps Leah marry Yaakov (Jacob) despite the fact that her wicked father prevents Yaakov from marrying his intended love, Rachel! How could she have suddenly devolved into this envious rival?

Interestingly, our Sages in the Midrash praise Rachel’s envy! Why? Is there such a thing as healthy jealousy? How can it ever be beneficial to crave what someone else has?

Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn taught that in material matters one should always look at someone whose situation is lower than one’s own – and thank G-d for His benevolence.  In spiritual matters one should always look at someone who is loftier than oneself – and strive to rise higher.

In a similar vein, the Talmud teaches that jealousy among Torah scholars produces more Torah study.  In other words, healthy jealousy really does exist.

And this, the Midrash explains, is the type of jealousy that Rachel employed. She was not jealous of her sister’s good fortune.  Rather, she envied Leah’s good deeds. Rachel viewed Leah as more righteous than her and recognized that she ought to aspire to greater spiritual heights.

We, too, can learn from Rachel’s example.  Coveting a friend’s power, income or family is a rotten character trait. It is essentially spurning the gifts G-d has given us and denying that He knows what’s best for us. And, it really won’t lead anywhere productive.

On the other hand, if we covet the dedication our coworker has toward her work ethic; if we are jealous of the amount of time dedicated to study and prayer by our friends; if we envy the effort our neighbors invests to visit the sick – we will reap great rewards.  Unlike material effects- which are in G-d’s hands – we chart the course of our own spiritual destiny. We may not have the same intelligence, grace or available time – but we can all emulate the commitment others have to their purpose in life.

If that drives us to do one more mitzvah, we are better off. If this jealousy moves us to pursue our own purpose and make a greater difference for good in the world, jealousy has taken a healthy form in our lives.

Jealousy, it turns out, is never benign. It’s either terrible or great.

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