Commandment #10: Does jealousy get a bad rap?

I think it’s possible that jealousy has gotten a bad rap, and I want to talk about it. And to do that, I want to talk about the gym.

Have I been to the gym? I mean, yeah. Yes! Yes, I have been inside of a gymnasium. But, we’re talking, like, a handful of times, at most.

Because I guess I could see the fun in going to the gym. But there’s this other thing, as it turns out, that’s also really fun, and it’s called sitting on your couch and demolishing a medium-sized pizza in front of the television. 

So yeah, you could say I’ve never self-identified as much of a “fitness enthusiast.” But then I met Muscle Mike. (Muscle Mike is not his real name.) 

He’s got very large muscles. And he routinely regales my friends and me with his exercise regimen. Everyone oohs and ahs as he tells us about his running exploits. And cycling. And weight-lifting. And Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The guy is like a walking advertisement for Equinox.

Now I have to say it: Muscle Mike has got me feeling a little envious. The way he seems to always be bursting with strength and vitality. The way everyone thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, which, I gather, he doesn’t eat much of. 

But…a curious thing happened after hanging out with Muscle Mike. I started doing more fitness-y things. I started going for jogs. I even bought a set of weights for the house. (Have I lifted one of those weights? That’s not the point. The point is that I bought them.)

So the question that this brought up for me is this: Are we sure that envy is a bad thing? I know that’s what we’ve been told. But isn’t envy just fuel? Doesn’t envy serve an important function in pushing us forward? To buck complacency? Why is envy bad again? 

Well, one of the Big Ten Commandments — which is the focus of this series — seems to speak to this very idea.

“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.”

Now, coveting — no one really uses the word “coveting” these days — but it’s essentially a really bad type of envy. It’s when you really yearn for someone else’s thing. 

And on the surface, it definitely seems like a bad thing. But, I’ve come across some pretty mixed messages when it comes to the idea of envy. Even within the Jewish tradition.

Here’s just one example: There’s a really famous passage in the Talmud that teaches that “the envy of scholars stimulates more learning.” Kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah. Being jealous, in an intellectual setting, is a really good thing. It makes people do better, learn harder, reach higher. 

So…is envy bad, or good? Well, I think there’s a really subtle distinction that gets to the heart of the matter. One that can help us utilize the good parts of envy and chuck the rest. 

And that distinction is encapsulated beautifully in a famous story contained in the Midrash. The books making up the Midrash which is like a bunch of homilies and parables inspired by the verses in the Torah and compiled anywhere between 200 and 1000 C.E. 

There’s a verse in Genesis, right there in the beginning of the Creation story, that says that “God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”

Well, the Midrash makes a seemingly random point that man, in this moment, was infused with both “earthly matter” and “heavenly matter.” And it goes on to tell a quirky little story about why that came to be.

You see — and stick with me here — on the first day, the Midrash explains, God created heaven and earth. One point for heaven, one point for Earth. Tie game. On the second day, he created the firmament, which is a heavenly thing. Heaven, 2, Earth, 1. On the third day? Dry land. Super earthy. Heaven, 2, Earth, 2. On the fourth, luminaries. Heaven, 3, Earth 2. On the fifth, the animals of the water. Heaven, 3, Earth, 3. 

Okay, but now we’re at Day 6. Who’s going to pull into the lead? Well, God didn’t want anyone to pull into the lead. Because then, in the words of the Midrash, there would be “envy in the Creation.” Kina b’maaseh bereishit. And so man was created on Day 6 with equal parts heaven and earth. Final score — a draw: Heaven 4, Earth 4 — nice and balanced ….and they lived happily ever after.

You see, I love this Midrash. Because to me, it’s such a true and powerful metaphor for showing what envy looks like when it goes bad.

All of that math and counting, that one-one comparison happening between heaven and earth. It seems so silly and childish…and it’s also exactly how many of us experience our lives. As a series of meticulously calculated comparisons to the people around us.

How am I literally, mathematically measuring up to the people around me? They have X amount of style, I need X amount of style. They drive X car, I need to drive X car. They have X number of accomplishments, I need X number of accomplishments.

I’ve got to be on at least equal footing with the people around me, or else I’m less than. 

That kind of envy is really dangerous. Why? Because it’s an impossible standard, a fool’s errand in the extreme. If we’re playing the mathematical game of ensuring that what we have is equal measure to everyone else, the math will break down eventually. There’s no way to sustain that equation. 

And, more importantly, we will not like the people we become in the process. Aristotle spoke of envy as more than just wanting what someone else has, but as “the pain caused by the good fortune of others.” And that image might hit too close to home for many of us: scrolling on Instagram, annoyed and resentful of everyone else’s adventurous life, furiously keeping score in the background. 

But…what if we would remove ourselves from that game — if we fundamentally understand that our life can never be a carbon copy of someone else’s life, and let go of the math of it all — then I think there is truly a way to leverage the excellence that other people display to propel us towards more. To get inspired by other people’s greatness — not threatened by it. 

The 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said something so spot on. He said, “Envy is secret admiration.”

Envy can point us to what others are doing well and tempt us — in the best and healthiest possible way — to lean into what’s possible in our own life. Not by mimicking or measuring up. But by taking what makes sense for us, and leaving the rest.

I think this nuanced view of envy is hinted at in the last words of the commandment, Do not covet. It ends off with this really inclusive clause: “…..whatever is your neighbors’.” And that’s the point — if it’s your neighbors’, and it works for him, think twice about wanting it for yourself, there’s a good chance it’s not going to fit you. 

So, back to Muscle Mike. If it ever becomes a 1-1 competition with Muscle Mike, I’m in big trouble, and not just because I’m fairly sure he has a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu and could choke me out in around 3.2 seconds.

If my own sense of personal value is tied up in whether I’m scoring competitively with Muscle Mike, it’s not ever going to catch up. But if I can get inspired by what is possible in the domain of fitness and do something about it that makes sense for me, I think that’s a healthy way to be envious.

There was a legendary Lithuanian rabbi in the 18th century named Elijah ben Solomon Zalman. He was known as the Vilna Gaon. And he said something fascinating and kind of surprising. He said that Lo Tachmod, not coveting, is the most important of all of the Ten Commandments, and more than that, the single most foundational principle in the entire Torah. Number one. 

And that really resonates with me. Because I think it’s impossible to make any headway in this spiritual journey that we’re on, this process of bettering ourselves and making this world a better place, if we’re busy trying to be someone else. 

Just imagine if we would all be really secure in the idea that we are one-of-a-kind, not to be compared. We’d seek out excellence in the world and get inspired by it, not from a place of insecurity, but from a place of security — a healthy and passionate desire to do the best we possibly can in this one-time, unique life we get to live. Okay, off to the gym I go. After I finish this slice of pizza.

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