Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday focused on gratitude and based on the Biblical holiday of Sukkot. What destroys gratitude more than anything else? Envy. There’s a good reason that the 10 commandments prohibit coveting, that is, desiring, that which belongs to others. It destroys our souls and defeats happiness. Gratitude is the foundation of the Jewish spiritual path. The very word “Yehudi-Jew”- comes from a root meaning thanks. To be a Jew is to be thankful. Envy is the opposite of gratitude.
Envy says, “I am NOT content with what I have; I want more, I want what my neighbor has.” “Envy,” according to Pirke Avot, “is one of the 3 things that drive a person from this world.” (Pirke Avot 4:28- other two are lust and honor) Envy consumes our being. There will always be people who have more than we do, so, if our happiness is contingent on having as much or more as others, we have set ourselves up for a lifetime of unhappiness.
When the Israelites are about to enter the land of Canaan, Moses begs God to allow him to join them. Having devoted his life to schlepping the people for 40 years of wandering, how can it be that he will be deprived of the opportunity to see the fulfillment of the dream that has sustained the community? He pleads with God to even turn him into an animal, just so that he can touch the holy land. God denies that request, allowing Moses only to ascend a mountain and view the land from a distance. Moses makes a final offer- he will appoint Joshua as his successor and defer to Joshua as the leader. God then addressed Joshua in front of Moses, and Moses is anxious to hear what God said. Joshua rebukes Moses- that was not the deal- you had your private time with God and I didn’t ask you, “What did God say?”, now, it is MY turn. In that moment, Moses comes to understand the destructive nature of jealousy. Moses relents from his demand and makes peace with his own death. He is depicted as saying- “I’d rather die than live with this feeling of envy.”
How can we make peace with our own sense of jealousy? It is perfectly normal to want what others have. In some ways this is not a bad thing- when we look at people who are exceptionally pious or devoted students, it can be motivating to us to feel a little envious. The real question is, what is the object of our envy? Is it in the material realm of the spiritual?
Rabbi Laura Geller writes, “Coveting only occurs when we compare ourselves with other people. It can lead to resentment, anger, jealousy, and judgment—attitudes that constrict our lives and keep us from being free. The tenth commandment raises the question that Pirkei Avot does: “Who is rich?” and challenges us to be able to answer truthfully: “I am, because I am grateful for what I have” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1). The Torah is replete with examples of the pitfalls of envy. Cain murders his brother Abel because he is jealous. Rachel envies Leah and all of their children envy Joseph. King Saul envies David and tries to kill him. The destructive power of envy is well-documented. Thanksgiving is the antidote to envy. Let’s take the spirit of Thanksgiving into every single day of our lives, focusing on our many, many, MANY blessings. Let’s make every day Thanksgiving.