| Second Thoughts |


Envy is not only a bad trait; it is actually bad for you, and could shorten one’s life

I have a new laptop computer, and its name is “Envy.” Now, electronic devices have many names: Android, Macintosh, Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Brother, and many more. These names evoke nothing negative. Android is a clever use of the Greek andro, for “male”; Apple and Macintosh are redolent of a delicious fruit; other names are at least neutral, evoking no discordant emotions. But “envy”? What did HP have in mind?

A foray to my Oxford dictionary resulted in envy as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by another’s better fortunes.” Their thesaurus offers synonyms: “jealousy, covetousness, resentment, bitterness…” But both Oxfords also offer a second usage, as in: “the firm is the envy of the world… the crème de la crème.”

Obviously, the makers of my Envy had this second meaning in mind. When you own this crème de la crème, you will be the envy of the world. In this vein, Mercedes-Benz once ran a full page ad in the New York Times containing just six words: “More power. More comfort. More envy.”

These advertisers assume that being envied by others is very desirable. They have evidently not been learning Chumash. When Yaakov instructs his sons to go down to Egypt to obtain food during the famine, he adds, “Lamah tisra’u,” a cryptic term often translated as “Why should you be conspicuous” (Bereishis 42:1). The Talmud (Taanis 10b) clarifies: “Since the entire land is suffering from famine, do not show everyone that you are well-fed, so that the children of Eisav and the children of Yishmael not envy you….” The Gemara gives further examples of refraining from behaviors that create envy, and the later masters of mussar urge us to behave in quiet, modest ways, in order not to excite the envy of those around us. In brief, no flaunting of what you have.

This is in contrast to general behavior today. Understatement is unfashionable. Showing off, ostentation, flaunting one’s wealth and clothing and possessions — this is de rigueur. Eat your heart out: I own an Envy laptop and you don’t.

Envy, jealousy, covetousness are powerful human traits. Since the Torah wants us to countervail our baser human traits, this might be one reason that envy effectively made it into the Ten Commandments as number ten: Thou shalt not covet. Coveting and envy are blood brothers. First, one envies and longs for something belonging to someone else. The envy then ripens and matures into coveting: the overwhelming desire to have that something for one’s own self, no matter what. A straight path leads from violation of Commandment 10 to violations of Commandments 6, 7, 8, and 9. Overcome by envy and covetousness, the person is ready to steal, or commit adultery, or even murder in order to obtain what he yearns for, and when caught, to bear false witness.

In truth, envy is not only a bad trait; it is actually bad for you, and could shorten one’s life. Hear what the Sages say about it: “Hakin’ah v’hataavah v’hakavod….Envy, uncontrolled desire, and seeking honor hastens one’s departure from the world” (Avos 4:28), a warning echoed by contemporary medicine. Envy is one of the major causes of human unhappiness. It destroys relationships, breaks up families, splits communities, engenders bitterness. Truly happy and wealthy is he “who is happy with his lot” (Avos 4:1), because such a person envies no one.

But as is true of every human trait, even the baser ones can be elevated and used for higher purposes. Hate, for example, is bad, but one should hate evil. Egoism can be utilized: Shall I, a child of G-d, debase myself with this deed? Stubbornness can help one resist the lures of temptation. And envy can be a catalyst for good: kin’as sofrim tarbeh chochmah, say the Sages (Bava Basra 21a). “Scholars’ envy (of another’s learning) increases wisdom.”

Envy, thus, is not entirely bad. In fact, I have grown quite fond of mine. O my Envy, how do I envy you! Let me count the ways. I envy your attention to detail: if I omit a tiny dot, you protest. I envy your loyalty: whenever you are given a task, you perform it without delay and without complaint — even at three in the morning. I envy your consistency and reliability, your equanimity and self-control — qualities I would like to emulate; your tranquility and serenity, your ability to multi-task without being rattled; your erudition, your silence, your willingness to teach me whatever I want. O my Envy, you are my envy.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 796)

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