The more we envy, the more we lose the acceptance we seek

Numbers 8:1-12:16
Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Many years ago, I heard Israeli philosopher Rabbi David Hartman say that it is much harder to rejoice in other people’s celebrations than to join in their sorrows. I understood that there was some paradoxical truth here, but I was too young to understand. I did not yet understand envy.

Last week, just before the Yizkor (Memorial) service, my rabbi, Shelly Lewis, taught an exquisite text from the school of the Kotzker Rebbe, quoting a talmudic teaching that “this world is like a wedding hall,” and explaining it by way of a parable. Imagine a person who went from a small town to the big city, and heard the sound of joyous singing coming from a nearby house. The man said to himself, “Perhaps the owner is having a wedding for his son.”

Every night he heard the same sounds coming from the same house. Puzzled, he said to himself, “What is going on here? Does my neighbor have a child getting married every night of the year?”

A native of the city overheard these musings and laughed. He explained that the house was a wedding hall, rented each night by a different family, each for their own celebration. No single family celebrates every night.

This, says the rebbe, is the meaning of the saying: “This world is like a wedding hall.” One person has joy one day, and another on the next. No individual has joy all the time. But if we so choose, we can participate in the joys of everyone in the world, every day of the year.

My Buddhist friends call this quality “sympathetic joy” — the ability to rejoice in another’s happiness or accomplishment, so that one actually enjoys another’s pleasure as one’s own. What a wonderful thing, to multiply one’s own opportunities for pleasure by the number of people in the world!

Why don’t we all do it? Because envy gets in the way.

This, I think, is the meaning of the story of Miriam and Aaron speaking critically of Moses in our parashah. Their complaint begins with disapproval of Moses’ Cushite wife, but then envy takes over. They begin to protest Moses’ special role as spiritual leader of the people, claiming that they, who were also addressed by God, do not get enough credit or authority.

Miriam and Aaron could not be content with their own gifts. What a shame, for each had a unique contribution to make, a particular way to serve.

Of the three, Miriam was the exuberant, charismatic leader, who could lead the people in prayerful song and dance, channeling their emotions into creative expressions of praise. Aaron was the reconciler, the “lover of peace and pursuer of peace,” (as the rabbis describe him), the person who led through his ability to create relationship. Moses had very different gifts, born of royal upbringing and intimate connection to God. But Miriam and Aaron wanted what Moses had, denigrating their own unique roles, and so begrudging him his.

And what happened? Moses, as we are told, was the “humblest man on earth,” which means not that he was meek or self-effacing, which he surely was not, but that he had no need to boast of his own powers, or begrudge others their own unique gifts. Moses was able to wish Miriam well, to pray for her when she was struck with leprosy, and she was healed.

But the Torah then tells us that Miriam was forced to separate from the camp for seven days before she could rejoin her community. The text describes this as a punishment, but perhaps it was simply a natural consequence of her envy. When we succumb to craving what another has, rather than embracing the truth that each of us has our own unique part to play, we suffer isolation. We feel separate and alone, either not good enough or better than others. Envy places us outside the camp whose approval we depend on, and we all suffer.

Learning to live more faithfully with our bouts of envy can be a lifelong task. We can only pray that someday, like our foremother Miriam, we will ultimately become one with our community again. We are part of a whole world full of reasons to celebrate, if we can only allow ourselves the blessing of rejoicing with others for what brings them joy.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at