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Holy Envy

Friday, 16 November, 2018 - 1:25 pm

One of the Ten Commandments is not to covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor."

I’ve always wondered why the Torah needs to specify so many items. Why not just simply state, ‘Don’t cover anything that belongs to your neighbor’?


In Vayetzeh, this week’s parsha, we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children.

Leah gave birth to six boys and a girl. Rachel, meanwhile, was childless. The Torah says that after Leah delivered her fourth child, “And Rachel saw that she had not borne any children to Yaakov, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Yaakov, "Give me children, and if not, I am dead."”

Rashi, the classic commentary on the Torah, is disturbed by this sentence. If Rachel was simply envious of her sister, the verse should have stated that Rachel saw that Leah had borne children to Yaakov and was jealous. Why does the verse state that she was jealous by viewing herself, which is not the typical catalyst for jealousy?

Therefore, Rashi interprets this incident as positive envy.

Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains that she envied Leah’s good deeds. She said, “If she had not been more righteous than I, she would not have merited children.”

This is an example of a similar statement of the Talmud, “Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom.”

There are times that being envious of someone is a virtue, as Mishlei (Proverbs) states: “Let your heart not envy the sinners, but fear of the Lord all day.”

When we envy someone’s spirituality it is suddenly healthy. Why?

Aside from the Talmud’s focus on the consequence of increased Torah study through competition, there is a virtue in the behavior itself.

To illustrate, try to substitute the word emulate instead of envy. Emulating a scholar is great! Emulating a pious person is also wonderful. Because it’s something virtuous and readily available to both of you!

When it comes to matters of spirit, copycats and wannabees are more than welcome.

But, in material pursuits there are two problems with the characteristics of jealousy/emulation (aside from the negative consequences it may lead to). One, it increases a person’s focus and – possibly – obsession with the accumulation of superficial things. Secondly, the reason we want what others have is often due to the difficulty in obtaining it. If every person on earth was born with, for example, a yacht – it wouldn’t be the object of envy. Envy means I don’t appreciate what my personal mission and role is. By looking at another person’s items, I am likely wishing (at least subconsciously) to replace those people with myself.

In spiritual affairs we need not fear about replacing others. Suffering from an infatuation with holiness is a fabulous predicament to be in. It’s also in endless supply. We can all have our spiritual cake and eat it too. And, so can they.

It’s no wonder then, that the Torah needs to specify not to covet “your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” Otherwise, we might mistakenly think all forms of envy are shunned.

Rachel was humble enough to look at herself and say I can improve and emulate someone (that someone happened to also be her ‘competitor’!).

Now, that’s something we should all be jealous of!

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