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The Ethics of Envy

The Ethics of Envy

Ethics 4:1

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Call it the green-eyed monster. Call it spite, pettiness, insecurity. I admit it: I don't like to be outdone by others. I feel uncomfortable in the presence of those who are more accomplished or more successful than I am.

It's not a very satisfying way to live. It robs a lot of the joy out of life to be constantly looking over my shoulder to see if someone else has surpassed me in some way. "Envy, lust and honor-seeking," say our sages in Ethics of the Fathers, "drive a person from this world." I most certainly agree. But as a three-pack-a-day addict, I find the habit hard to kick. How does one rid oneself of envy?

I found my answer in the first mishnah of the fourth chapter of the Ethics (the same chapter that warns us of the pitfalls of envy):

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is powerful? One who overcomes his inclinations. Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. Who is honored? One who honors others.

Upon closer examination, these four aphorisms highlight the most common causes of envy, and deliver four potent tools to combat it:

1) Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Number one trigger of envy: Feelings of incompetence. I watch someone else gracefully execute the same task that I struggle through so clumsily, and immediately the familiar churning begins inside me. Why is she so good at this when I am such a klutz?

Wait. Envy here is a destructive response. I am taking a negative view of the situation by focusing only on my inadequacy. The positive counterpart is to focus on what I can learn from this situation. She is good at this. I can study her methods and approach, and try to discover how she does it. I won't be able to exactly replicate her success -- we are different people and we each have our unique style and gifts -- but I can definitely apply the lessons to improve my own performance. Those who are succeeding where I am not are not only my competitors -- they are a rich source of invaluable information.

This mishnah turns the usual paradigm on its head. The wisest are not necessarily those with the most knowledge; they are those who are most open to learning.

2) Who is powerful? One who overcomes his inclinations.

Once again, the mishnah inverts the pyramid. To us, the powerful are those who wield control over masses of people -- corporate chiefs, heads of state. We envy their ability to make things happen, to issue dictates and direct global events. Ben Zoma takes an opposite view. Power over others is illusory. The only true power we yield is over ourselves.

Yes, envy is a natural response to the success of others. So are bitterness, depression and greed. But we have the power to choose our "inclinations," the emotions that fill our hearts. Like the irritating sand that the oyster transforms into a pearl, we can use the bothersome feelings of jealousy as a means of growth. Why am I feeling envious? What lack in me is being highlighted here that I can fix? What character trait can I strengthen?

3) Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot.

Those who live from paycheck to paycheck (or worse yet, don't know where the next paycheck is coming from) find it hard not to be jealous of those who seem to have it made. My living quarters are crumbling; theirs are luxurious. My only vacation is a walk in the nature reserve; they book a cruise annually. Ironically, though, this type of envy strikes us all, regardless of our actual financial footing. Even the comfortably ensconced can't resist keeping tabs on the spending habits of their neighbors and friends. As our lifestyle improves, our standards also rise, guaranteeing a permanent state of malcontent.

The only way to break the cycle is to resolve not to gauge our happiness according to physical assets. True wealth means taking pleasure in what we have and living each moment fully. Again, it's our call to make: We can be rich in money, or rich in satisfaction. (I'd take both.)

4) Who is honored? One who honors others.

Once I started to actively apply Ben Zoma's teachings to curb my envy, I discovered something refreshing. In the past, upon noticing an attractive quality in someone else, I would immediately seek the corresponding feature in myself, usually to my own detriment. I realized that I could completely overturn my usual reaction. Rather than dwelling on my own defects, it is so much easier and more pleasant simply to appreciate nice things about others.

Observation: A beautifully dressed woman walks by.

Reaction I: I am so fat and frumpy.

Reaction II: I admire the way she dresses. She looks so graceful and regal.

When my envy gets triggered, I can flip it around -- what do I admire about this person? While envy is an uncomfortable emotion that leaves me feeling diminished and depleted, admiration is highly positive. I never feel impoverished or ashamed when I express genuine admiration to someone else. Even previously uneasy relationships have been transformed once I learned to get over the petty jealousy and replace it with a sincere compliment.

Envy is extremely polarizing -- everyone is a competitor, an opponent. A good quality in someone else is a negative point for me. Admiration does just the opposite. It puts us all on the same team. Even if I lack something, I can appreciate it when others have it. When someone does well in a certain area, I thank G‑d for giving them the strength to accomplish what they do. Their success benefits me and leaves me free to focus on the things I do best. Looking for ways to honor others brings a true win-win situation -- it is a gift I can give that takes nothing from me, and immeasurably enriches another person.

Nearly everyone I meet eventually makes it on to my admired persons list, for one reason or another. Indeed, we can find something to admire and honor about everyone. After all, G‑d created us all in His image, and He must be getting something out of the deal. If He finds someone worthwhile, surely I can, too.

Chaya Shuchat is the author of A Diamond a Day, an adaptation of the chassidic classic Hayom Yom for children, as well as many articles on the interface between Chassidism and contemporary life. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in nursing from Columbia University.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous jerusalem December 25, 2014

wonderful. thank you! Reply

Shirona Byron Grapeland, TX March 18, 2009

Article Response I was in attendance of women's spiritual meeting and 'green with envy' was the topic. I was reminded of my own negative envious moments as well as appreciation of others as gratitude replaces envy. In researching the topic Tomas Aquinas has some of the most thoughtful ethical discourse on the topic. Envy is a mortal sin, daughter of sorrow and rooted in fear. Noting that envy is a human condition, awareness and correction are required to place it in proper perspective. Thank you for your timely observations. Reply

LaFreddy Perkins dallas, tx August 28, 2007

Article response Very good article...I think envy is its own best friend/worst enemy...some people bond over mutual envy of a third party and some are at odds with everyone/thing because of their envy, that's when it's a worst enemy! Reply

Anonymous June 14, 2007

Very interesting article. But what is judaism's stance on envy when you're the victim of it? when others regularly show their envy towards your accomplishments with snide remarks and mean attitudes. What to do? Reply

Anonymous Washington, DC August 24, 2006

Very Helpful Article on Envy Dear Chaya Shuchat:

This is an excellent article on envy. This article was very helpful to me. I have been struggling a lot with envy and jealousy recently, and looking for good middos (character traits) articles on improving in this area.

I am a female member of Jewish Renewal, and, like Chaya Shuchat, am a writer, part-time teacher, and several other simultaneous careers, so Chaya Shuchat's perspective was greeted by me with great sympathy and appreciation, and gratitude for her thoughts.

Many blessings on your good work, Reply

deborah matlack brooklyn, ny September 2, 2004

Article on Envy by Chaya Shuchat I may be a Lutheran and you may be Jewish, but believe me we all can suffer from ENVY from time to time. I really enjoyed Mrs. Shuchat's article, particularly the section about honoring others for their accomplishments. When I do that, it removes the self pity I sometimes indulge in. I am free to strive to do what I do best, rather than sit around envying someone else. Someone said to me, "When you envy someone, you have to walk in their shoes." The grass isn't always greener.

Sometimes it's easier to ENVY, than to WORK!

Thanks for a great article. Reply

Anonymous August 30, 2004

I can identify I can identify with this article. I have struggled with the same problem of envying people who I think are smarter or look better than me. I printed out your article and am going to try to change my outlook to a more positive one. Thank you for your advice. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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