Parshas Vayeitzei The Good Envy!
There is a saying that goes “If others are jealous, you’re doing something right.” It is human nature to be jealous. We all experience envy to some degree at some point in our lives. We do social comparisons and decide that our friends have more and better than we have. What is the psychology behind envy? Most would say that we are just not happy with ourselves so we become envious. That’s psych101. Envy then leads to anger, which at times is projected inward and at other times, it is projected outward. We can all agree that envy can only lead to bad things.
So we turn to Mama Rochel for direction. We see that Rachel Imeinu was human and she also experienced envy. After her sister Leah has three sons the Torah attests to her envy by saying ותקנא רחל באחתה-And Rachel was jealous of her sister (1). Well who wouldn’t be. Rochel was childless and her sister was having a fourth son. So the question is why now? Why is it after Rochel already has three sons is she all of the sudden, jealous?
The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh says that since Rochel and Leah were sisters, it must not be a fertility because the presumption was that if one sister was fertile, so would the other. So the reason for her infertility, Rochel assumed, must have been a spiritual reason and that is what made her jealous. That is also a possible reason as to why the Torah specifically uses the word “sister.” But why now? That reason would be good even after the first son was born?
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski suggests a more careful reading of the Psukim which discuss Leah’s reactions to having her first three sons. They were all inwardly directed. “Now my husband will love me”, “Hashem heard that I am disliked”, “This time my husband will enjoy me.” Rochel did not react to any of these statements from Leah as they were all directed to herself. However, when Yehuda was born, she says “This time, I am thankful to Hashem.” At this point, Rochel could no longer be silent. Why? Because she came to the stark realization that she was unable to praise Hashem on the same level as her sister Leah. This is certainly a very lofty level. When you are able to say to yourself, I know that all of the children Hashem grants us are gifts that are worthy of having the ability to praise, that is a very high level of recognition. She was not jealous of Leah because of her fertility issues, rather she was envious of Leah’s ability to show proper gratitude for having children. What an amazing idea.
Rav Twersky goes on to say how this envy is comparable to the envy that two Torah scholars should have for one another. Not for the other’s brilliance or ability to give over the Torah knowledge, or the ability to memorize parts of Shas. In fact, the Gemara (2) says that jealousy between Talmidei Chachomim increases their knowledge as they each try to aim higher. This is the kind of envy that leads to greater success as each scholar recognizes that the other person’s achievements give them more of an opportunity to serve Hashem with greater passion. This is why Rochel Imeinu was envious. It was not directed inwards. So perhaps Leah got it right on the fourth time as we started this podcast by saying “If others are jealous, you’re doing something right.”
In an article written in 2000, author Dena Shehab notes that envy in women experiencing fertility issues is a frequent feeling that is often triggered by seeing children and pregnant women (3). This is perhaps the most heartbreaking experience women can experience, she suggests and it is often uncomfortable for others to offer support out of a fear of not knowing what to say.
It is clear that envy is part of life. Can you imagine how difficult it was for Rochel and Leah? What lessons can we learn from this part of our Parsha.
In life we need an appetite. By seeing what others have and wanting what they have, we develop an appetite for that thing. Now this can be destructive or constructive. It is constructive when we realize what we can possibly achieve.
Our neighbors were once celebrating a graduation of their daughter. Before they sat own to eat, I overheard her mother giving thanks for having an appetite for the food that she was about to enjoy. This was a pivotal moment in my level of appreciation for having an appetite. Not just for food. An appetite can be like a drive. A drive to reach higher levels. Now that is something to be jealous of.That is what I would call “The Good Envy!”
- Bereishis 30:1
- Bava Basra 21a
- Shehab, D. L. (2000). Women with infertility: An exploration of their psychological experiences and feelings of envy. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 61(3-B), 1656.