The Powerful But Dangerous Tool of Envy

This column has often noted how the modern world has finally “discovered” the ancient truths of the Torah. Sometimes they actually get it. Other times they find half the truth or less, to their detriment and loss. The same is true of science’s recent embrace of the positive side of envy.

Chazal teach us that although kinah – envy – is generally a destructive and evil trait, sometimes it can be quite positive and useful. For instance, the Gemara (Bava Basra 21a) teaches that “kinas sofrim tarbeh chochmah – the [proper] envy of scholars stimulates more learning.”

Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, recently wrote (New York Times Sunday Review, May 6, 2018), that the “upside of envy,” the title of his article, is that “envy can help us identify our vision of excellence and where we need to be.” The professor marshals such philosophical experts as Socrates, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Camus to prove that envy can be harnessed for self-awareness and personal growth. At first, this noble goal seems to echo the words of our sages. However, a deeper look at the Torah teachings about kinah reveals how careful we must be with this dangerous trait.

Let us begin with an incredible story that has become well-known in many Torah circles. Rav Chaim Kanievsky came home from minyan one Shabbos morning and, uncharacteristically, insisted on telling a tale that had just occurred. The head of the chevra kadisha related that just before Shabbos, he had arranged for the body of a Jewish woman to be exhumed from a Christian cemetery and reburied in a Jewish grave. She had died five years before, but her body was perfectly preserved, with no signs whatsoever of decay or deterioration. Even her skin appeared as fresh as if she had just expired. What was her extraordinary history?

Ninety-five years before, her parents and sister had travelled to the United States from Russia, while she stayed behind. Her sister passed away in childhood and she herself sustained a horrible blow to the brain, rendering her a total vegetable. She remained in a medical facility for 73 years until she died at the age of 90 five years ago.

Rav Chaim immediately explained to the chevra kadisha head why the woman’s bones had not decomposed.

“The Gemara (Shabbos 152b) derives,” he quoted from Mishlei (14:30), that “envy brings rotting of the bones.” The Gemara concludes that only those who have the middah of envy experience rotting of their bones in death.” Rav Kanievsky went on to analyze the situation. “This woman,” he declared definitively, “had no one of whom to be jealous in the United States 90 years ago. She certainly was not envious of the gentiles, with whom she had little interaction, and Jews were rare in those days. After she received her injury at age 17, she manifestly had no feelings of jealousy and so passed away never having had a moment of envy in her life. Thus, her body experienced no rot at all. In fact, we may derive from her story that for people who have had never had any jealousy at all, even the flesh does not putrefy at all.”

This story, in and of itself, should be sufficient to inspire us to avoid envy at all costs. But the story does not end there. Rav Chaim added an anecdote he had heard from his grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levin, the famed “tzaddik of Yerushalayim.”

“In Kovna, Rav Chaim said, “when the entire cemetery had to be exhumed by governmental edict, only two graves contained people who were unravaged by time and the elements. One was a great tzaddik named Rav Leib Kovner. The other was an ordinary soldier. His personal story was extremely uplifting. He had been drafted into the Russian army where all soldiers were forced to eat treife food. This soldier refused, was force-fed and choked to death,” Rav Chaim concluded with tears in his eyes. He related that his father, the Steipler Gaon, had revealed that in Morocco, when the graves in the Jewish cemetery were also transferred to a new location, the bodies of the Tashbetz and the Rivash were totally intact. That Shabbos, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was sandek at a bris in Bnei Brak and the entire story was related to him. He listened intently but was bothered by a problem. “Why?” he inquired “was this lady untouched by bodily rot, whereas we often see even the bodies of very young children decompose?” Rav Chaim immediately answered that children who are incapable of envy because they are too young do not have the zechus of avoiding kinah. However, that girl, who was already seventeen before her accident, had such amazing middos that she had never been jealous of anyone and so merited that her bones did not rot (see Ohel Moshe, Bamidbar, page 547).

We can readily note the difference between our attitude toward envy and that of the good professor. We are enjoined by our sages to run from envy as if a great disaster will attack our very bones. Although it is true that it is good to be jealous of one who is holier, more religious or more scrupulous than we are, we are always to be wary of being envious of someone’s wealth, power, mundane achievements or good fortune.

The Ramchal (Mesilas Yeshorim 11) warns us that envy can only cost us a loss, never a gain, and the Sefas Emes (Noach 5656) reminds us that the downfall of the first murderer in world history, Kayin, is defined forever by his jealousy of his brother. The Sheim MiShmuel (Mishpatim 5677) offers us a reminder to keep us out of the envy quicksand. “All of Klal Yisroel is actually one giant person,” he asserts, “and therefore one can no more be jealous of a brother than one hand can be jealous of the other. Indeed, although the Alter of Kelm (Chochmah Umussar 1:130) points to Rochel Imeinu’s “good kinah” (Bereishis 30:1), he points out that in general, envy can only cause profound harm and destruction.

So how do we avoid this terrible trait and yet emulate those who are spiritually superior? Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:135; 4:4) points us to the famous words of the Ibn Ezra on the last of the Aseres Hadibros. He asks, “How can one control a forbidden emotion such as envy? Surely it bubbles up naturally and takes on a life of its own. He answers that we must always feel like the peasant who contemplates the king’s daughter looking for a prince. He doesn’t even think of himself for a moment as a candidate, because he lives in a different universe. This is how we must think of anything that belongs to someone else. We must work on ourselves to realize that it should not even be on our radar, let alone make us jealous or angry. Rav Dessler adds that “just as someone else’s glasses have a different prescription than ours and are not appropriate for our eyes, so must anything belonging to someone else be considered unfit for us as well. If we would limit our comparisons and competition to spiritual matters and pay no attention to other people’s material possessions, we would be much happier and the world itself would be a much more peaceful place indeed.