The Green-Eyed Monster

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Mercedes recently ran a full page ad in The New York Times. It contained only six words. At the top were two words: “More Power.” Four inches below that were two more words: “More Comfort.”

And finally, four inches below that, the last two words: “More Envy.”

One can appreciate the advantages of driving a car with more power and with more comfort. But what does envy have to do with driving a car?

Furthermore, the ad seemed logically skewed. Power and comfort are qualities we can possess. Envy, on the other hand, is not something we possess; it is something others will feel toward us if we own this car.

But the ad is not skewed at all. In fact, the copywriters fully understand human nature. When they peddle the idea of becoming the envy of others, they are tapping into something very deep within human nature. They know that, for most of us, to be the target of envy is a marketable commodity, as desirable as the power of the car’s motor and the comfort of the car’s interior.

What does envy have to do with driving a luxury car? Everything.

ENVY IS built into us. Say the rabbis: “Except for his child and his disciple, a person is envious of everything” (Sanhedrin 105b). Note how envy rears its unlovely head through the narratives of the Torah.

At the beginning of history, the serpent is envious of Adam and Eve – and is responsible for their expulsion from the Garden. Cain is envious of Abel – and kills him. Joseph’s brothers are envious of him – and sell him into slavery. Korach is envious of the power wielded by Moses – and foments a rebellion.

In its efforts to mold our character the Torah wants us to curb and control envy. When the last of the Ten Commandments warns us about coveting, it is also cautioning about the precursor of coveting – envy.

Stage 1: I envy my neighbor’s house. Stage 2: I wish I had my neighbor’s house; it is to die for. Stage 3: I must have a house like that. I will do anything – anything – to get a house like that.

This explains why envy and coveting, which seem relatively innocuous, are on the short list of God’s prohibitions, right up there alongside adultery, theft and murder. Envy can easily lead to our doing anything to possess that which we envy.

Perhaps this is why the “Thou shalt not covet” of this commandment is repeated twice in the same line.

BUT SUPPOSING I limit myself to envy alone and don’t follow up with anything else. Whom does it hurt? One answer is that it hurts the one doing the envying. The Torah is concerned with human happiness, and knows that envy and covetousness, even if they do not lead to any untoward acts, are generators of heartache and wretchedness. To let ourselves be consumed by the sparkling new toys of our friends is to invite lifelong misery, no matter how wealthy we may be.

When Shakespeare referred to envy as the “green-eyed monster,” he knew that it was precisely that: a monster that eats away at our innards. The Mishna anticipated him: “Envy, lust, and pride remove a person from this world” (Avot 4:28).

These attributes, with envy in the number one position, are like a raging river that overwhelms us, despoiling both our spirits and our physical selves. Envy is truly what John Dryden calls “the jaundice of the soul.”

So cognizant were our sages about its pitfalls that they worried not only about our envy of others, but also about its mirror image: engendering the envy of others toward us. That is why they used to pray, “Let me not be envious of others, and let others not be envious of me” (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 4:2).

Although we do not fully comprehend the concept of ayin hara – the evil eye, there is in the Jewish tradition a concern about unleashing someone’s evil eye – his envy or jealousy – against us.

It is not likely that the Mercedes people would utter the same prayer.

ENVY, however, is not always bad. It drives many of the good things we do, and is the engine for many of our achievements. We want our businesses to be the envy of the trade, our skills to be the envy of everyone else, our reputations to be the envy of others.

While the envy within us cannot be entirely eliminated, it can be channeled, and thus become a useful component of the contented life.

“The envy of scholars increases wisdom,” says the Talmud (Bava Batra 21). That is, if I envy my friend’s learning or piety or capacity for kindness, it could be the catalyst for increased learning or piety or kindness on my part. If we succeed in downsizing our toy-envy, and learn to envy that which people are, rather than what they possess, we will have approached a measure of personal serenity.

I do not drive a Mercedes, not only because I don’t like being the target of envy, but because I cannot afford one. But whenever a Mercedes zooms by me on a bumpy road, words like “More Power” and “More Comfort” do cross my mind – plus, I confess, a fleeting twinge of envy.

How much envy? Sometimes more, but I am working on less.

This article appears in today’s Jerusalem Post.

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2 Responses

  1. Binyamin says:

    I would add to barry’s comment that there is a further distinction (as I understand it) between “coveting”? [chemda] and jealousy [kin’a]. It is forbidden to desire to have the very item which belongs to someone else. [Lo Tachmod] If one is jealous of a neighbor, but does not actually desire to own their posession, then that is a moral failing [the mida of kin’a], but he is not violating a specific mitzva.

    (If someone feels motivated to buy something because he saw it by his neighbors, he does not fall into either category.)

  2. barry says:

    It has been noted elsewhere that the Torah does not proscribe us from wanting to [earn enough money] to BUY the Mercedes in the dealer’s window.
    What IS forbidden is being envious of the one we see in our neighbor’s driveway.