TENTH COMMANDMENT: Positive envy

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קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה בבא בתרא, כא, ע”א
The Envy of the Sages Multiplies Wisdom

The famous Jewish psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote a monumental book called “To have or to be?.” Fromm’s book, which could well be considered a book of “Musar” (Jewish ethics), shows the difference between these two verbs, explaining that there are two forms of “identity.” 1. When we identify ourselves by what we have and identify others by what they have, and 2. when we identify ourselves and identify others for who they are.

I would like to extend this profound analysis of Fromm to an entirely different area, envy. The idea is that there are two types of envy: 1. Negative envy; when I envy someone for what he or she has, and has managed to possess, and 2. Positive envy, when I envy someone for who he or she is or managed to be.

Let’s look at some examples from the world of “to have”. I can have or possess money, investments, estates; the best car, the best cell phone, the best house, etc. I can also have a good working CEO of a famous company, etc. What we have is vulnerable. Everything we have can be lost. Someone can take it away from us or usurp it. Besides, everything I have can be acquired and “transferred”. What I have, can also be the object of envy. There are those who will envy my house or my fortune or my position, etc. And many will perhaps try to compete with me and take away what I won.

Let us now look at some examples of “to be.” To the dimension of “being” belongs, for example, my “wisdom”, what I have learned, studied and experienced. My “character”, that which over time I refined or modified in my personality, my patience, a little longer than before, my good mood, which is now almost unconditional, my sensitivity towards the one who suffers, which I developed because I also suffered, etc. And then there are my “values”: my generosity, my spirituality, that is, the relationship I built with HaShem, my integrity, etc. All these virtues of the dimension of “to be” are not vulnerable or transferable. They can not be bought, sold or inherited. Although studying is expensive, wisdom can not be acquired with money, but by spending time studying and reading. Something similar happens to my character: as much as I want, I will not be able to “transfer” my children my patience, something that I cultivated over the years. And while a parent can teach his children integrity, there is no guarantee that this or any other value will be necessarily or automatically transferred to my heirs. In the dimension of “to be” there are no transferences.

Now that we may understand a little better the difference between being and having, we can continue our thought about envy. When envy happens in the realm of “having”, it is destructive. Envy can destroy the envied person and often destroys the envious. Sometimes an envious person not only that he will not get what he wants, but he may well lose what he has. To prove this last point the rabbis cite the example of Korah. מה שביקש לא נתנו לו ומה שבידו נטלוהו ממנו. Korah “had” an important position within the Jewish people. But for him it was not enough or fulfilling, since his cousin, Moshe “had” a higher position than him. Korah organized a rebellion against Moshe with the intention of usurping his position. In the end not only that Moshe was not affected by Korah, but Korah did not get what he wanted, and moreover, he lost everything he had. Material envy leads us to unfocus ourselves from our own achievements and pushes us into looking obsessively at the success of others. This type of envy destroys us from inside, sowing within us very negative feelings such as depression, hatred, resentment. Our existence, like that of Korah, becomes miserable.

Now let’s talk a bit about envy in the dimension of “being.” Envying someone’s wisdom is a positive feeling since more than envy is admiration. And since I know that I can not “take” away from my colleague his knowledge, his character or his values, the only natural option I have left to channeling my admiration for him is “imitation.” If I want TO BE like him, I need to devote more time to study, to cultivate my patience a little more, to refining my character, to developing a better relationship with God, to re-evaluating my values, etc. In other words, this envy is positive because it encourages me to grow.

Our rabbis called the envy for the wisdom of another person קנאת סופרים, “envy or competition among Tora scholars”. Which in fact does not affect or diminishes the wisdom of the person I admire, but ultimately multiplies it.