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24 Shevat 5768 - January 31, 2008 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Jealousy Masquerading as Piety

by Yochonon Dovid

"Believe it or not," said Mr. Markoval in a loud voice to the group of people standing around him, "but people today are driven by a mad desire for luxuries. Take, for example, my neighbor. Thirteen years ago, we both bought identical cars. My car still serves me admirably but he has already exchanged his three times for the latest model at the time. Do you see what I'm driving at? If he were some businessman or high powered salesman, I could understand. But he is no more than a petty clerk in some public institution. And not long ago, he retired. I earn more in a month than his pension brings in for a year. I just can't comprehend it!"

His audience nodded in agreement at this sermon on austerity, adding their own opinions about unwarranted splurging. R' Yitzchok, who was standing there, motioned to his son to leave the circle so they could continue on their way. After they had distanced themselves, the son said, "It is clear that Mr. Markoval is upset about extravagance and overspending. His pain seems to come straight from the heart."

R' Yitzchok suddenly slowed down and asked his son in surprise, "That's what you heard? That's all that you registered? A young man of your age who has already been privileged to open a Mesillas Yeshorim can, and should, be able to hear between the lines. You could have listened more intently and arrived at the essential core of what he was saying."

The son stopped short and asked, "Abba, tell me exactly what you're suggesting. Explain what you mean."

"Come, let's go home and then we can talk at ease." They climbed up the stairs and soon resumed their conversation in their living room.

"Look here, son, one of the strongest attributes of a person is jealousy. A jealous person cannot make peace with the fact that someone else is better than he in some area. He cannot bear it. When it involves a good person, and the area in which his neighbor supersedes him is a positive one, it is an impetus for excellence. `Kinas sofrim,' it is called; the envy of scribes, which increases wisdom. Competitiveness between scholars propels the jealous one to strive higher, to be more diligent and studious. He certainly does not evilly wish his neighbor's downfall.

"When it comes to money and material things however, or honor, then the jealous person does seek to nullify his neighbor's superiority by pushing him down or even by eliminating his competitor. Jealousy is a tremendously destructive force that can thrust aside anyone that stands in its way.

"This is the teaching of the wisest of all men in Mishlei (27:4). Envy begets a deep, seething anger that can bring a person to cruelty — to the point of desiring to totally remove the object of one's envy. I think that had we continued to stand there and listen to Mr. Markoval's heated sermon about thrift, frugality and austerity, we might have also heard him wishing some road accident to his spendthrift neighbor who dared buy a newer model car than the one he, himself, owns.

"The desire of the jealous person to nullify the other person's superiority is so strong that he is even prepared to pay for it at his own expense, so long as the object of jealousy is lowered a notch below him in every way.

"The Ralbag concretizes this destructive tendency through a story about a jealous man and a greedy one who are standing before the king. Each one is granted a wish which will be fulfilled for him but for the other person it will be fulfilled twofold. The greedy one is silent. He wants the jealous one to state his wish first, in order that he receive twice as much. But the jealous one finds a way out: He asks the king to gouge out one of his eyes . . . This is the perfect illustration of a jealous person and to what lengths his cruelty can reach — even to the point when he will suffer."

"That's hard to believe!" exclaimed the son. "Here we heard a person speaking enthusiastically against excessive spending for ostentatious purposes; he even presented a personal example. How can you attribute such evil motives to him?"

"You should realize," said the father, "that an envious person knows in his heart of hearts that jealousy is a negative and evil trait. He will never come out and declare publicly that he is jealous. A clever, sophisticated psychological mechanism will clothe the negative trait in a costume.

"Just a few moments ago, we were witness to a play where the envy of a neighbor who sported a new, shiny car appeared in the masquerade of a mussar sermon touting modesty and economy, and decrying showiness. The costume seemed very positive and very praiseworthy to everyone in the audience. But one who is not finely attuned to the nuances of a person's psyche and the convoluted pathways of his egotistic thoughts, swallows the sermon whole and even nods in approval, without realizing what lies below it."

"But, Abba," the son remonstrated, "how can you say that? How can you determine that it was jealousy behind his fervent sermon for modesty and economy? Perhaps his words were genuine and honest!"

"You surely remember how I was able to identify your three cousins who came to us on Purim dressed up as figures from the Megilloh. A tiny slit in one's costume is enough to give the show away. Anyone with a sharp eye can even identify a palm peeking out from a sleeve . . . And that's exactly what happened with the grand lecture he gave us just before. Why did he have to tell his audience exactly how much more he earns than his neighbor? Whom does that interest? Who has to know that when the subject is reticence, modesty, frugality and sufficiency with a minimum? That was the slit in his masquerade which revealed the real content inside the costume.

"From my experience, I was able to see that this happens in most cases involving jealous people of all sorts. Sometimes the split is wider and more apparent and it is easy for any person to see the bad traits hiding inside the deceptive sheep's clothing. Sometimes, the crack is narrow and barely visible, but someone with a keen eye can guess what is lurking under the disguise.

"Two verses in Mishlei deal with jealousy from opposite directions, relating to the two forms of damage inflicted by this devastating, evil trait. Shlomo Hamelech focuses on the jealous person himself and says, `Envy is a decay of the bones.' Envy eats away at a person's innards and decomposes his flesh and bones, as well as the pleasure which he could have derived from what he does possess. In this way, the envy which he nurtures within him serves to eventually remove him from the world — and not only from this world . . .

"The second verse deals with the cruelty of the envious person, and states, `And who shall withstand jealousy?' The object of the jealousy is a candidate for harm at the hands of the envier. This is a suggestion to the wise to efface those obvious words that serve the jealous one as a yardstick to measure himself against others.

"Fortunate is the one who lives his life within his own privacy and does not expose himself to the public eye. In this way, he will not serve any potential envier as a model or object for comparison and envy.

"Best, however, is the person whose strong points lie in the spiritual realm, where the usual jealously-inclined person does not look. The former's friends in the beis medrash may be jealous of him, but this is kinas sofrim which is a positive stimulus for emulation and self elevation.

"Man was born alone. His propensity to remain solitary is ingrained in him from Creation. But, as with every basic trait, it can be used for the good. Then, the person fulfills the will of his Creator which is also for his apparent benefit.

"But man's inclination makes him utilize his basic traits in negative directions which can reach, as in our case, to serious acts. This is what the Torah tells us about Cain and Hevvel who were very close to the beginning of Creation.

"A wise person can monitor himself and see which trait is truly propelling his actions when he suddenly finds himself touting thrift etc. This is, after all, the primary and central task of a person — to supervise himself."

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