An acquaintance approached me in the checkout line and said, “I heard that you’re going to Israel. I’m so jealous!” I thought of retorting, “I saw that you’re expanding your new home. I’m so jealous.” I wondered if that would have made her uncomfortable. Instead, I chose to smile and say nothing. But our brief encounter left me feeling uneasy.

Some people may claim that “I’m jealous” is just an expression, like “Get out of here!” or “Break a leg!” Of course, these aren’t meant to be taken literally. But certain expressions are concerning, and “I’m so jealous” is one of them.

No, I’m not overthinking this. I’m just aware of the insidious effects of jealousy. It can morph into an uncontrollable monster. Our sages cautioned us, “Jealousy, desire and pursuit of honor remove a person from the world.”1

The Consequences of Jealousy

The consequences of these destructive character traits are highlighted in this week’s Torah reading. Korach was a scheming rabble-rouser. Jealousy and impudence led him to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Although Korach possessed social status and wealth, he was dissatisfied.

Feelings of jealousy are normal, but if those feelings are allowed to evolve, beware! Excessive jealousy is self-sabotaging and hijacks a person’s clarity and perception. Like any other negative trait, it’s meant to be harnessed and transformed into a positive one.

Our Talmudic Sages encourage us to admire and emulate others’ virtuous, positive behaviors: “Jealousy among Torah scholars increases wisdom,” they write.2 The desire to refine one’s abilities, knowledge, and character is positive and productive. In contrast, destructive jealousy emanates from a lack of self-worth, thinking that someone else’s success will decrease your own.

The Torah provides us tools with which to cultivate a realistic, healthy, sense of who we are. The first and the last of the 10 commandments—“I am the L-rd your G‑d,” and, “You shall not covet”—connect to form a fundamental teaching. G‑d grants each of us resources with which to achieve our specific life’s purpose. Saying to yourself, “I deserve this just as much, or even more than, someone else,” or thinking, “Why don’t I have what s/he has?” is implying that G‑d’s agenda is flawed. Thoughts such as these essentially express the haughtiness and entitlement that led to Korach’s downfall. Focus, instead, on what’s in your toolbox and use your resources well.

A doctor wouldn’t covet a repairman’s screwdriver, nor would the repairman covet the doctor’s stethoscope. Neither would be able to do his job with the other’s tools. Similarly, our material possessions and circumstances are needed to best play our earthly roles in the script of life that we are given.

Whatever we have, or lack, is necessary for our particular role. It’s not the part we play that matters; what matters is how well we play the part. Jealousy distracts a person from accomplishing what s/he has been placed in the world to achieve.

How to Be Like the Wise Person

The Talmud teaches us: “Who is wise? One who sees what will be born [from his actions].”3 Our thoughts and actions influence our direction. Harboring jealousy produces negative ramifications, and is harmful to our health and well-being.

Strive to be like the wise person. Wise people are mindful of their triggers. We can emulate them by being aware of our own red flags. They’re meant to alert us: “Beware, you’re approaching a jealousy zone. Change direction, immediately!”

How can we avoid falling into the clutches of jealousy? Recognize that thoughts lead to actions. Wisely and proactively choose what thoughts you allow to occupy your mind. Evict distorted ideas that can mislead you. Eliminate the phrase “I’m so jealous” from your vocabulary. It may be just an expression, but it’s certainly not a positive one worth repeating. Spoken words amplify our inner feelings. Rather than focus on what’s lacking in your life, be more aware of what you have and can be grateful for.

We can never fully know another person’s situation in life; only G‑d knows the entire story. That’s another reason why it’s pointless to be jealous of anyone.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of Korach and his followers. Aspire to overcome your feelings of jealousy and not act upon them. But if you ever find yourself feeling envious of someone who has overcome their jealousy, then just admire and emulate him instead.

Making It Relevant

  1. Every time you have the natural urge to feel jealous, switch your focus to things for which you are grateful.
  2. In cases of loss, focus on what remains.
  3. Recognize that you could lose what you have. Appreciate the life you’re living.