Envy is an insult to oneself.—Yevgeny Yevtushenko
In a 2011 study, psychologists Sarah Hill, Danielle DelPriore, and Phillip Vaughan found that people who felt envious of others possessed an increased ability to commit to memory details about the target of their envy; for example, they paid closer attention to their peers’ personal information and performed better on a surprise memory test about their peers. Envy may be unbecoming, the study concluded, but it can be a driver of change for the better.
To be sure, envy is not merely an undesirable character trait; it is a serious and dangerous illness (Orchos Chaim, No. 113). Not only does the envious man “gain nothing for himself” (Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 11), envy “rots the bones” (Shabbos 152b; Mishlei 14:30) and drives a person from the world (Avos 4:21; Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer, Chapter 13).
The story is told of a man whose jealousy knew no bounds. An angel appeared to him one night and promised to grant him any one wish, with this proviso—“whatever I give you, I will give double to your neighbor.”
After much deliberation, the man responded, “Okay. Poke out one of my eyes.”
But not all jealousy is so deleterious.
“And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Yaakov, and Rachel became envious of her sister” (Bereishis 30:1). Although Rachel was jealous of Leah, it was an acceptable form of envy inasmuch as Rachel said to herself, “Were [Leah] not more righteous than I, she would not have been worthy of bearing sons” (Rashi, Bereishis 30:1; Medrash Rabba 71:9). Petty, destructive jealousy is born of the fear that another person’s success diminishes our own self-worth; constructive jealousy—like Rachel’s—can be a catalyst for growth.
So Margaret Thatcher was only part right when she opined that “the spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” Envy certainly can destroy. But it also can arouse. It can inspire. It can build. It can be a catalyst for unimagined growth.
“The envy of Torah scholars increases wisdom” because it fosters a positive atmosphere of competition in spiritual matters (Bava Basra 21a and 22a). And such laudable envy can be found not only in the pursuit of Torah study but in all areas of spiritual refinement. Indeed, jealousy over religious excellence “is very good, and it is the attribute of the great ones” (Orchos Tzadikim, Sha’ar HaKinah; see also Kad HaKemach, Kinah; Pele Yo’etz, Kinah; Ohr Yahel, Vol. 2, pg. 27). One may and ought to be aware and covetous of the ethical and spiritual achievements of others, for such jealousy fosters elevation and perfection in the service of G-d (Medrash Socher Tov 37:1). The explanation is simple: when you see someone else doing good, jealousy intensifies your motivation to do good too.
It is said that the Alter of Slabodka, R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel, would often ask students in the Slabodka yeshiva what they thought of other students in the yeshiva specifically to transform the students’ natural sense of jealousy into the more acceptable form of spiritual envy.
But not all authorities shares in this unfettered approbation (see Avos 4:28 and Rabbeinu Yona and Rashbatz ad loc. [spiritual envy is acceptable, not optimal]; see also Koheles 4:4; Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. 1, pg. 126 and Vol. 3, pg. 185). These authorities condone academic and spiritual therapy not as the ideal but only as initial inspiration for growth. “To remain on the level of scholarly envy, this is certainly not the proper path” (Ohr Yechezkel, Midos, p. 290; see Maharsha, Bava Basra 21a).
Still, one must ensure that this “spiritual” envy not be a proxy for its more sinister cousin. For if spiritual envy is rooted in a base desire to outshine others for the sake of honor or braggadocio, it is no better than rank jealousy.
A bright and ambitious young student at Stanford University was offered a summer trip to the Far East by his parents, a reward for his well-deserved academic success. While in the Far East, he fell under the influence of a group of Buddhists. They criticized his ambition, telling him he studied hard, not to learn, but to outdo his peers. The young man conceded that was true, and he called his parents to tell them he would drop out of school and join the Buddhist monastery.
Six months later, his parents received this letter from their son:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know you were disappointed with my decision to stay here, but I want you to know how happy I am. For the first time in my life, I’m living in an envy-free atmosphere—this way of life is so much in harmony with the inner essence of my soul that in only six months I’ve become the Number Two disciple, and by June I think I can be Number One!
But when spiritual envy is sincere—when it is driven by a true yearning for growth—it can be utterly transformative.
The Baal Shem Tov would often tell the story of two neighbors, a Torah scholar and an impoverished laborer. The scholar would wake before dawn and study Torah for several hours. He would then pray at length and with great devotion, hurry home for a quick breakfast, and return to his Torah studies for several hours more. Only in the afternoon would he venture out to the market and engage in some minimal business dealings—just enough to earn his basic needs—then back to Torah study. After evening prayers and dinner, he would again learn Torah until deep into the night.
His neighbor, the laborer, lived quite differently. He too would wake early, but no matter how hard he struggled to earn a living, he barely succeeded in putting bread on the table. His schedule simply did not allow for lengthy Torah study: he would pray quickly at daybreak, after which his labors consumed the remainder of his day and a fair amount of his night. Even on Shabbos, when he finally had the opportunity to open a book, he quickly nodded-off from exhaustion.
When the two neighbors passed each other, the scholar shot a look of scorn in the direction of the crass materialist and hurry on to his sacred pursuits. The laborer, on the other hand, would sigh to himself: How fortunate is his lot; how unfortunate is mine. We’re both hurrying—but while he is rushing to learn Torah, I’m off to the mundane.
The years rolled on in this manner until, at last, the two men stood before the heavenly court of Divine judgment. An advocating angel placed the scholar’s formidable virtues on the right-hand side of scale. Things were looking good. But then came the prosecuting angel, placing but one object on the other side of the scale: the contemptuous look the scholar occasionally sent his neighbor’s way. The weight of this disdainful glance first equaled, and then exceeded, the formidable load of merits.
The laborer’s experience was quite different. The prosecuting angel loaded the acts of his spiritually empty life on one side of the scale, while the advocating angel had but one weight to offer in equilibrium—the covetous sigh emitted by the laborer when he encountered his scholarly neighbor. But that sigh—that simple, sincere, covetous sigh—outweighed all the laborer’s demerits, and it validated his entire life.
So the next time we find ourselves admiring—perhaps even envying—the lofty merits of our friends, neighbors, or relatives, by all means, let’s not shun it. Let’s embrace it. Let’s use it as a catalyst for our own growth. Because that sort of envy is not, as Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko put it, an insult to oneself—it is a way to build oneself.