Parashas Nasso 5774 -- Toxic Envy; A Special Siyum
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 30, 2014
"Of all the seven deadly sins," writes essayist Joseph Epstein, "only envy is no fun." That statement finds plenty of support in Torah sources. Mesilas Yesharim terms kinah (envy) extreme foolishness, for the envious man "gains nothing for himself and deprives the one he envies of nothing," as it says, "Envy kills the fool" (Iyov 5:2). Kinah (envy) consumes a person and deprives him of all enjoyment of life. In the words of the wisest of all men, "U'r'kav atzmos kinah – Envy is the decay of the bones" (Mishlei 14:30). When our Sages listed kinah among the three qualities that take a man out of the world, they meant, inter alia, that falling into the clutches of envy makes life not worth living.
Envious people tend to see the world as a limited pie, and thus anyone else's gain is of necessity at my expense, for there is less of the pie for me. That is precisely the mindset of sinas chinam, writes Rav Dessler, for which we have been in galus for two millennia. And its source lies in the failure to recognize that Hashem has both the desire and the power to shower the world with unlimited bounty, if we will just open up the conduits of blessing through our Torah learning and our ma'asim tovim (good deeds).
An increasing body of social science research demonstrates the self-destructive force of envy. In a New York Times oped "The Downside of Inciting Envy," Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, cites studies linking envy to diminished health. Envy is positively correlated to depression and neurotic behavior. Those asked whether they are "angry that others have more than they deserve" who respond in the negative are five times as likely to describe themselves as "very happy" with their lives as those who answer in the affirmative.
As opposed to this negative form of kinah there is another form that our Sages refer to as kinas sofrim (the jealously of scholars for one another). One scholar does not begrudge the greater scholar his achievement or wish that he would fail. Rather the other's greatness becomes a spur to push oneself harder in order to emulate that success. Instead of viewing life as a zero-sum game in which others' success dictates my failure, others' success opens up the possibility of my own greater success. It is kinas sofrim because the world of Torah, the world of ruchnios, is by definition infinite. My own memory of yeshiva and kollel is that the best learners were also the best loved, as all recognized that they made possible our own greater achievement.
AMERICANS HAVE TRADITIONALLY tended towards the kinas sofrim side of the spectrum. One aspect of American exceptionalism is the absence, by and large, of class-based parties. Early visitors to America noted the lack of envy compared to Europe. Alexis de Toqueville observed in his still classic Democracy in America, Americans see in the success of others signs of their own future rise. Brooks quotes Irish singer Bono, "In the United States, you look at the guy who lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think . . . 'One day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion.' In Ireland, people look at the guy in the mansion and say, 'One day, I'm going to get [him].'" As recently as 2006, the World Values Survey, Americans were only one-third as likely as the British and French to state "hard work does not generally bring success."
But that is changing, and as a consequence, American society is becoming ever more bitterly divided. Jealousy is toxic for societies no less than for individuals.
To deflect attention from anemic economic growth and the dramatic decline in the percentage of adults in the workforce the Democratic party has loosed the hounds of class envy, with constant talk of the 1% and those "who don't pay their fare share." The fewer people who experience the self-respect that comes with holding a job the more embittered people there will be: It's comforting to conclude that hard work has nothing to do with success when one is not working. To preserve its power the government class would turn America, in Victor Davis Hanson's formulation, into a nation of peasants jealous of anyone who has more than they do.
The alternative to the focus on redistribution, which is of necessity divisive, would be an optimistic focus on economic growth and job creation – i.e., growing the pie. Just as lifting one's existence to a spiritual plane, a realm of infinitude, lessens jealousy so does viewing the material world as capable of vast expansion – a readily observable feature of our material world that constantly confounds the dour Malthusians.
But the current administration cannot even approve such a no-brainer as the Keystone Pipeline, which would produce tens of thousands of the well-paying jobs that America has been shedding.
Mesilas Yesharim offers as an antidote to envy the recognition that Hashem apportions everything according to a perfect plan and that no one can take away from me what has been designated for me. Obviously perfect fairness is impossible in the human realm. Still the greater the perception that the playing field is level and the game has not been fixed in advance the less jealousy and bitterness there will be.
The modern leviathan administrative state, with vast and largely unreviewed decision-making authority in the hands of anonymous bureaucrats, inevitably increases the chances of favoritism. The proliferation of government regulations makes the cost of doing business prohibitive for many upstart entrepreneurs and saps capitalism of its animal spirits. It discourages the entrepreneur and small businessman eager to get ahead by virtue of their determination, hard work, and willingness to take risks, and deprives the economy of the job creation that flows from their efforts. At the same time, it turns doctors, into form fillers draining the practice of medicine of the intellectual stimulation, people contact, and financial security that encourages talented young people to devote ten years or more of their lives to training in the first place.
Professor Angelo Codevilla of Boston University views the great divide in American society not between Democrats and Republicans, but between the country class and the government class, which perpetually orients itself to government. Wall Street and many major corporations fall into the latter category constantly engaging in rent-seeking behavior through lobbying government.
"By endowing some in society with the power to force others to sell cheaper than they would, and forcing others to buy at higher prices – even to buy in the first place – modern government makes valuable some things that are not, and devalues others that are," writes Codevilla. "The proliferation of regulations is necessary precisely by so that government can specify how people will be treated unequally."
Levelling the playing field and expanding the pie are the antidotes to a zero-sum society filled with toxic envy.
A Special Siyum
Last week, I wrote about the stubborn determination of the ba'alei teshuva learning under the ever watchful eye of the KBG in the former Soviet Union. As a Russian-born friend of mine told me, "Want to get a Russian Jew to do something just tell him he can't."
I had a taste of that quality at a siyum just after Pesach in my neighborhood. Making the siyum was Aleksey Chernobelskiy, a recent college graduate (with four separate majors no less), who turned down admission to a Cambridge University graduate program in financial engineering to study at Machon Yaacov this year.
Two months ago, Aleksey's shiur completed perek HaSocher es HaUmanim in Bava Metzia, the first chapter of Talmud he had ever finished. He recalled a story of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky telling someone who came to him for a blessing for a better memory that he should first review everything he learned forty times to determine whether he really needed such a berachah. So Aleksy and another Russian-born young man, Mark Segal, decided to review forty times, many of them by Skype at 5:00 a.m., as Mark was travelling abroad. They started just before Pesach break, and pursued their goal while sleeping an average of three hours a night.
After completing the forty reviews, Aleksey found himself enjoying the chazora immensely, and fortuitously remembered a shmuess he had heard earlier in the year on the famous Gemara in Chagiga (9b) that distinguishes between a tzaddik who serves Hashem and one who does not serve Hashem. The difference concludes the Gemara is between one who reviews his learning one hundred times and one who reviews 101 times. So Aleksey decided to review the perek another 61 times.
And those reviews were not just a quick laining of the text, which would have been impressive enough. They could not have been. Aleksey only learned how to read Hebrew a few months ago. As bright as he is, the Hadran and Kaddish at the siyum took close to ten minutes.
The occasion of the siyum was the third yahrtzeit of Aleksey's father. And he told a number of stories of the humor and courage with which his father led his family in the United States, after both he and his wife lost their prestigious engineering diplomas in transit from the FSU. Perhaps the most impressive story was how his father started a non-profit Lego Club for Tuscon youth at a time that his English was still too rudimentary to even fill out the requisite government forms and the family was itself impoverished.
Fittingly, Aleksey's father's name was Michoel – gematria 101.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Jewish Ethics, Personalities
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