fbpx
[additional-authors]
February 1, 2024
mikkelwilliam/Getty Images

Violence, Girard declares, comes from a mimetic version of desire,

which is the rationale of the last of all Ten Commandments, number ten, ve-

toing the root of antisocial harmony to make its sell-by date expire,

abolishing the green-eyed monster that’s entitled envy.

 

The prophet Micah recommended its antithesis, walking with humility

with God, a journey towards what Virgil seemed to recommend, sic itur ad astra,

denoting “Thus one journeys to the stars,” but retaining the ability

to not feel exiled when exercising mentally, but delighted to excel in a diaspora.

Another antidote to envy, as Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks once explained, is gratitude.

I’m waiting for a hi-tech star to invent an app for this apt attitude.

  


Micah 6:8 states:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהֹוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ {ס}       

“You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what GOD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk with humility with your God. 

Jonathan Sacks discusses the importance of the Tenth Commandment in “To Thank Before We Think: Yitro – Covenant & Conversation 5776 on Spirituality,” 1/30/16:

The Ten Commandments are the most famous religious-and-moral code in history. Until recently they adorned American courtrooms. They still adorn most synagogue arks. Rembrandt gave them their classic artistic expression in his portrait of Moses, about to break the tablets on seeing the golden calf. John Rogers Herbert’s massive painting of Moses bringing down the tablets of law dominates the main committee room of the House of Lords. The twin tablets with their ten commands are the enduring symbol of eternal law under the sovereignty of God….          

This structure serves to emphasise what a strange command the tenth is: “Do not be envious of your neighbour’s house. Do not be envious of your neighbour’s wife, his slave, his maid, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s.” At least on the surface this is different from all the other rules, which involve speech or action. [Envy, covetousness, desiring what someone else has, is an emotion, not a thought, a word or a deed. And surely we can’t help our emotions. They used to be called the “passions”, precisely because we are passive in relation to them. So how can envy be forbidden at all? Surely it only makes sense to command or forbid matters that are within our control. In any case, why should the occasional spasm of envy matter if it does not lead to anything harmful to other people?….

Rene Girard, in his classic Violence and the Sacred, says that the most basic cause of violence is mimetic desire, that is, the desire to have what someone else has, which is ultimately the desire to be what someone else is. Envy can lead to breaking many of the other commands: it can move people to adultery, theft, false testimony and even murder….

Jews have especial reason to fear envy. It surely played a part in the existence of anti-semitism throughout the centuries. Non-Jews envied Jews their ability to prosper in adversity – the strange phenomenon we noted in parshat Shemot that “the more they afflicted them the more they grew and the more they spread.” They also and especially envied them their sense of chosenness (despite the fact that virtually every other nation in history has seen itself as chosen. It is absolutely essential that we, as Jews, should conduct ourselves with an extra measure of humility and modesty.

So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy…..

The antidote to envy is gratitude. “Who is rich?” asked Ben Zoma, and replied, “One who rejoices in what he has.” There is a beautiful Jewish practice that, done daily, is life-transforming. The first words we say on waking are expression our gratitude to God: מודה אני לפניך, I thank you.  We thank before we think.

Judaism is gratitude with attitude. Cured of letting other people’s happiness diminish our own, we release a wave of positive energy allowing us to celebrate what we have instead of thinking about what other people have, and to be what we are instead of wanting to be what we are not.


Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.