From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Who hasn’t felt jealous on occasion? A normal human being feels pangs of jealousy. It happens when we’re young and it can happen when we’re older, too. When we’re young, jealousy begins between siblings. It might go badly between them but there might also be lessons learned along the way.  

In Talmud, the rabbis recognized that human nature can’t be repressed but it can be tamed. In deference to God and mitzvot, they reasoned that jealousy could be motivating if it caused a person to try harder or to emulate a good example. In Tractate Bava Batra 21a, we’re taught, “The jealousy of scholars increased wisdom.” In this verse, the subject is about who is the best teacher for children. Rather than quench the jealousy between competing teachers, the rabbis saw it as a potential bonus. Two people matched in skill and ability don’t have to compete constantly; they can hone their skills by partnering in their studies (chavruta) and learning from each other. The beneficiaries are their students.

The worst case of jealousy highlighted by the rabbis was the example set by Moses, who maligned the Israelites before God. Moses, who was not be permitted to enter the promised Land, was incensed that the Israelites, who complained bitterly in the wilderness and were called a “stiff-necked people,” were permitted to proceed into the Land. In Midrash, the rabbis teach us that God said to Moses, “You are like a bad neighbor who counts his neighbor’s income but not his expenses” (Tanhuma Buber Vayikra 6). It’s like a bad neighbor who sees what goes into the house next door (the new car, the boat, etc.), but not the strife or tsuris that also occurs there. By this, they explain that Moses could only see the Israelites’ deeds, but not their intentions. God, however, could see both.

The wisdom of the Talmud is found in a wise lesson about jealousy, and in its focus on embracing our human tendencies. Rather than call our jealous feelings “sinful” and condemning ourselves, the rabbis transform jealousy into a productive resource.

Our human tendency is to draw conclusions quickly. We either see what we want to see or assume more than we know. If we accept that we can’t know what’s really going on next door, for example, we can transform jealousy into something more productive. We can work on improving ourselves. We can find a partner or mentor with whom to grow in skills and understanding. My hope is that jealousy, which is such a powerful feeling, can be used to make improvements in the life that we’re living.

The Talmud also teaches, “Gam Zu L’Tovah,” this too is for good. Who knew that jealousy (not too much) might also be for good? How will you aim to grow and with whom? How can Congregation Beth Israel be your partner to grow in skills and understanding? We’re a click or a call away and we’re open for Shabbat services and opening more for all we enjoy, together.


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