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The Crime of Envy

Parshat Yitro contains the most widely known section of all biblical verses. They are commonly referred to as the 10 Commandments although Talmudic analysis clearly demonstrates that they contain more than 10 commands or mitzvot. The Torah accurately uses the term עשרת הדברת or “10 Statements,” and as Rav Saadia Gaon explains, they are the 10 broad and general categories under which every one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah falls.

These 10 Statements are themselves broken down into 2 categories: the first five are known as “commands between man and God,” while the second five are “commands between man and his fellow man.” Remarkably, to a vast number of people worldwide and as well for most people who live here in America, they are considered the pillars of ethical behavior and morality. We would be hard pressed to find someone or some society that has an issue with “don’t steal,” “don’t murder,” “don’t give false testimony,” and “don’t commit adultery.” Even the first five which relate to ideas about God such as “don’t worship idols and don’t bow down to them,” are considered even by atheists to be an advancement over primitive man’s notions of deities and forms of worship.

Thus, we see that the core of the Jewish religion is unique. It embraces not only the realm of God but it seeks the peaceful and harmonious social order and interactions among all mankind. As mentioned in some of my other essays, we cannot properly serve God unless we affirm that all people are “created in the image of God,” and act accordingly by affording every individual dignity and justice. To sin against a fellow man is a degradation to the divine image he reflects and a denial of the Creator’s very words.

However, the last of the 10 Statements, “don’t envy or covet” seems to be of a different nature than the rest. The others either proscribe activity or require us to do something. However, “do not covet or be envious of another person’s possessions,” is telling me how not to feel. This command is prohibiting a natural human feeling. It is only natural to feel a little envious of my neighbor’s new car or home, or his acquiring the latest iPhone or computer. What is so wrong with envy or jealousy that it makes the top 10 list of how not to be?

Envy or jealousy like every other human feeling and emotion can be used for good or bad. If envy of a person’s high report card grades, spurs another student to study harder, then that feeling was channeled properly. If envy of profits motivates a competing company to produce a better product, then again, this feeling of jealousy was directed in a more proper way. What is so bad?

The philosophies and systems of communism and socialism are negative manifestations of the feeling of envy. These systems are presented as the antidote to perceived economic injustice. A newly elected politician in America recently and unabashedly said that “being a billionaire is immoral.” While ridding society of economic disparity sounds noble, its driving force is the envy for those who have accomplished and succeeded beyond what others could do. Three modern nations but among the most repressive and cruel societies known to mankind are the former Soviet Union (now just Russia), the Republic of China, and Cuba. They are communist societies. The recent collapse of Venezuela is directly linked to its socialist run government and economy.

The underlying source for envy is that we measure ourselves against others be it a comparison of their abilities, their situation or their success. Consciously or not we think and tell ourselves “life isn’t fair.” It isn’t fair that he or she has “x,” “y,” or “z” and I don’t. It isn’t fair that I must study twice as hard to pass the exam. It isn’t fair that he was born into such and such family. What a huge advantage that is!

The prohibition “not to envy” is given precisely to teach us that we should never measure ourselves against anyone. God created every individual with his or her unique attributes and skills. It is in the development of those unique set of personal qualities that we should place our energies. Any energy put into comparisons leads to the blame and erroneous conclusion that God is unjust. Envy ultimately leads to the denial of a fundamental truth expressed in Psalms 145:17, “the Lord is just in all His ways.” This principle is the bedrock of having any relationship with God. Envy leads to the opposite notion and places a high, almost insurmountable barrier between a person and God.

Viewed in this way it is not only with the feeling of envy but every mitzvah that demands a feeling and emotion serves to ultimately channel our energy into the proper relationship we should have with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan