The End of Envy

By Alexander Zaloum, Clarksville, MD
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017


“Love your fellow as yourself” – Rabbi Akiva says, “this is a fundamental rule of the Torah.”

Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b


It happened again. You had finally found your niche. That craft at which you were going to excel. That quality for which you would be known and remembered. You were going to be the best writer, swimmer or chef. Or perhaps the most successful, talented or intelligent. Whatever it was, it was going to make you special.

And then…someone else came along. This “other guy” wrote better, swam faster, and his cooking – to die for. He was more successful, talented and intelligent than you could ever be. And, of course, he didn’t even try.

Most of us feel a need to be outstanding in some way. Today, when low self-esteem is highly common, we are especially prone to envy the successes and virtues of others. For some, envy can be a source of constant stress, always feeling the need to catch up, or stay on top. For others, envy can even spell existential angst: “If I am not truly special, then why am I here? What am I worth?”

This essay sets out to explain that if we live with a Chassidic understanding of the Torah’s commandment to love our fellow as we love ourselves, then our envy for one another will dissipate naturally.


“Love Your Fellow as Yourself” – The Chassidic Way
The verse is well known: “[…] you shall love your fellow as yourself”.[1]

Often this verse is interpreted as the “Golden Rule”: Treat others how you want to be treated. If you wouldn’t like it if someone did “X” to you, then don’t do “X” to someone else.

Chassidus’s perspective is simultaneously both deeper and more literal: the Torah commands you to “love your fellow as yourself,” because, in essence, your fellow is yourself.

What does that mean?

The Alter Rebbe explains that, “…All of Israel are called ‘brothers’ in the fullest sense, as the root of their souls is in the One G-d; only their bodies separate them.”[2] Each of our souls is, “truly a part of G-d Above,”[3] and just as He is One, so are we. [4] The Tzemach Tzedek further explains that one who rejects his fellow Jew is actually rejecting a piece of himself.[5]

Thus, the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself” is not (only) that you treat your fellow as you would yourself, but that you perceive your fellow as a reflection of yourself. (With this perception you will naturally treat your fellow with love as well, as your actions will be a product of the genuine love you have for him or her in your heart.)


If This is The Truth, Then Why Don’t I Feel It?
This is all very nice in theory, but if we are truly one at our core, why does it not appear that way? Why are there some people with whom I seem to have next to nothing in common? Why do I feel like a distinctly separate “self”?

On the verse “And I will separate you among the nations”[6], Rashi comments that “[…] Israel was scattered as if with a winnowing basket, like a person who winnows barley with a sifter, and not one of them is stuck to their friend.”

Just as geographically the Jews are scattered around the globe, so too spiritually each of us inhabit our own island of consciousness. Deep beneath the surface, our islands are connected, but the sea obscures our common ground. Our collective task is to evaporate the waters and reveal a single landmass, a single Consciousness through which we are all intimately intertwined.

This will be the true “ingathering of the exiles” about which the Rambam writes: “In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition, for good will flow in abundance”[7]

How do we achieve this state of mind? What practical steps can we take to bridge the psycho-spiritual gaps between us and make the end of envy our reality?


Making it Real
The following are two Chassidic insights from which we can take practical advice to make these lofty ideas into our daily reality:

Insight #1: You Have Two Warring Souls.
In Tanya, it teaches that we each have two souls: 1) a divine soul that seeks G-dliness and possesses a natural love for every Jew, and 2) an animal soul that cares solely about its own base desires.[8] Our two souls are in constant battle with one another, each one trying to conquer our mind and heart to serve its purposes – and they cannot both rule.[9]

Just as water and fire cannot occupy the same vessel together, so too love for physical pleasures and love for one’s fellow Jew cannot reside in one heart. [10] Since it is only our bodies that separate us, the more our corporeal existence is pronounced, the less we will experience ourselves as one. Thus, whereas the hippies preached “free love” while indulging in food, sex, drugs, etc., Chassidus teaches that in order to love your fellow, you must first stop indulging yourself.

(To be sure, this is not a call for asceticism. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often emphasize the importance of maintaining physical health (eating well, sleeping sufficiently, etc.) in order to serve G-d properly. [11] In fact, enjoyable food and drink can even be holy if they are used open the mind for holy purposes such as learning Torah and serving G-d with greater enthusiasm.[12] However, there is a clear distinction between enjoyment and indulgence: what you enjoy you can put down with ease, what you indulge in you cannot.)

In our island parable (see above), we could say that whereas holy acts like learning Torah and doing mitzvos have the power to elevate our islands higher above sea level, indulgence pulls our islands deeper into the water.


Insight # 2: Contemplation Creates Reality
In most ethics classes, once an idea is grasped, you move on to the next one. Why dwell on something you already know? However, chassidus teaches that it is possible (and common) to grasp an idea intellectually without it affecting your character. Hisbonenus is the intense and prolonged contemplation of a single idea to the point that it becomes ingrained in who you are.[13]

Though we may have an intrinsic love for our fellow Jew, without hisbonenus, that love may very well remain latent our entire lives.[14] In our island parable, hisbonenus is like sunlight that slowly but surely evaporates the waters between us.

Unlike some transcendental meditations, hisbonenus does not have to be done on a mountaintop. It can be done while riding the subway, eating dinner, or getting a haircut. (In fact, in our case, it might be even more effective to contemplate the essence you and your fellow share in his or her presence.)

What exactly are we supposed to contemplate? A few ideas:

  1. Extract the Ego. In an effort to feel unique, we often build a “self” based on successes we have achieved or talents we possess. However, in order to come close to G-d and close to each other, we have to let go of our “self.”[15] With each new person that you meet, rather than struggle to maintain the “self” that exists outside of them, try to see them as a reflection of your divine soul.

Example: If you have a beautiful voice, try to be aware of the “sense of self” you get when singing for others. Let go of the need to fill yourself up with their praise. When you listen to someone like Avraham Fried, instead of thinking, “Man, I wish I could sing like that,” think, “Wow, that’s the version of me that was given an amazing voice!”

2. Forgive your Fellow. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, teaches that whatever vice you see in your fellow is a reflection of that very vice in yourself (however subtle it may be).[16] We may search especially hard for faults in those we are envious of, hoping to bring them down to our level. But if you focus on refining your own character, you can more readily accept them as they are with brotherly love, and this will ultimately empower them to improve as well.

Example: If it really bothers you that someone is always late, then honestly introspect to see if you are also somewhat careless with other people’s time. If you refine this aspect of your own character, then his tardiness will not bother you as much (or you might not even notice it at all!). If he is late again and you embrace him nonetheless, you can break the chain reaction of negativity, and he may surprise you with his punctuality next time.

3. Diminish the Differences. Our mental abilities and emotional traits are called the “aspects” of the soul[17] – they are not the soul itself. Just as you would not change if you became physically stronger or weaker, so too your essence would remain the same if these “aspects” were enhanced or diminished. Although we may accurately characterize a person as “stoic” or “emotional,” “outgoing” or “reserved,” relative to the root of the soul, such characteristics are superficial. Therefore, when you meet someone who differs from you significantly in intelligence or temperament, take a moment to contemplate that they, like you, are much deeper than any of these qualities that they possess.

Example: Every Facebook profile picture presents a unique face, and each timeline tells its own story. They are all different expression of a single essence. When you and your friends are tagged in a photo, acknowledge that these nametags are based on distinctions in physical appearance, personality, etc. If the tag would describe the person’s essence, then each tag would read the same: “a piece of G-d.”


Seeing the “other” in this light leaves us with nothing to be envious about. Although we do indeed possess different abilities, that is only because we each have our individual mission in life. All of our souls are completely bound with G-d[18], and thus completely bound to each other. We are akin to different limbs of a single body[19] – unique in our purpose, and one in our essence. Just as the mouth cannot possibly envy the hand, if we view ourselves as part of a single whole, we cannot possibly envy each other.



Sources and Footnotes
[1] Vayikra 19:18
[2] Tanya, Chapter 32
[3] ibid., Chapter 2
[4] It is important to note that while the source of all souls are from the same place (specifically, in Kabbalistic terms, the Sefirah of Chochmah in the World of Atzilut), the souls ultimately have differences which depend on how they are affected in their “descent” into this world. (See Lessons in Tanya Vol.1 p. 422). Even after this descent, however, our souls remain rooted in G-d. It is in this sense that we are truly one.
[5] Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Ahavas Yisroel
[6] Vayikra 26:33
[7] Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Melachim U’Milchamoteihem, 12:5
[8] Tanya, Chapters 1 and 2
[9] Tanya Chapter 29
[10] see Chovos Halevavos, Shaar 8, 3:25. There it says this with respect to love of “G-d” (not your fellow), but see HaTamim p. 188 where it says that love of G-d and love for one’s fellow are inseparable.
[11] see Igros Kodesh, Cheilek 4, p. 340-341, Likutei Sichos vol. 31 p. 175-176
[12] Tanya Chapter 7
[13] See Torah Ohr, parshas Mishpatim p. 75 column 4, and the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres Avodah
[14] See Likutei Sichos Vol. 17 p. 216 footnote *). Also see Basi Legani 5737, part 7, printed in Toras Menachem Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat Vol. 2, p. 389, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe identifies three stages in the process of hisbonenus: 1) Giving Strength, 2) Enlightening and 3) Influencing.
[15] Tanya, end of Chapter 22. In chassidus, the term used for self-nullification is “bitul.”
[16] Keter Shem Tov, p. 12, paragraph 89
[17] Tanya, Chapter 3
[18] Likutei Sichos Vol. 31 p. 133
[19] Chassidus Mevoros, Avodah Tefilah, pg. 8