27 Jul Are You a Jealous Person? Why Envy is Ignorance
The tenth and final of the Ten Commandments recorded in this week’s portion (Vaeschanan) reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, and anything that belongs to your neighbor.”(Deuteronomy 5:17; Exodus 20:14).
The structure of the verse seems strange. In the beginning, the Bible specifies seven things we should not covet: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s home, nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey.” But then, at the conclusion of the verse, the Bible states: “And anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Why the unnecessary redundancy? Why not just state at the onset “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor,” which would include all of the specifics? And if the Torah does not want to rely on
generalizations and wishes to specify details, why does it specify only a few items and then anyhow revert to a generalization, “And anything that belongs to your neighbor?”
A Holistic Story
In Hebrew, the word employed for “anything” and “everything” is identical, “Kol.” Hence, the above verse can also be translated as, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, and everything that belongs to your neighbor.” By concluding the verse with these words, the Torah is not just instructing us not to covet anything of our neighbor, but also helping us achieve this difficult state of consciousness.
How could you demand from a person not to be jealous? When I walk into your home and observe your living conditions, your cars, your bank accounts, and your general life style, how could I not become envious?
The answer is, “Do not covet everything that belongs to your neighbor.” What the Torah is intimating is that it is indeed easy to envy the home and spouse of your neighbor, his servants, his ox and donkey; yet the question you have to ask yourself is, do you covet “everything that belongs to your neighbor?” Are you prepared to assume his or her life completely? To actually become him?
You cannot see life as myriads of disjointed events and experiences.
You can’t pluck out one aspect of somebody’s life and state “I wish I could have had his (or her) marriage, his home, his career, his money…” Life is a holistic and integrated experience. Each life, with its blessings and challenges, with its obstacles and opportunities, constitutes a single story, a narrative that begins with birth and ends with death. Every experience in our life represents one chapter of our singular, unique story and we do not have the luxury to pluck out a chapter from someone’s story without embracing their entire life-journey.
When you isolate one or a few aspects of someone else’s life, it is natural to become envious. But when you become aware of “everything that belongs to your neighbor,” your perception is altered. Do you really want to acquire everything that is going on in his or her life?
So the next time you feel yourself coveting the life of the other, ask yourself if you really want to become them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was correct when he observed that “envy is ignorance.”