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Envy and the Yetzer Hara

            There’s a Jewish concept called the Yetzer Hara, or the evil inclination, which (along with the Yetzer Hatov, or the good inclination) at first glance seems to be a version of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it’s more complicated than that. As usual.

“Why is everything so complicated?”

            The Yetzer Hara has often been reinterpreted not so much as an inclination to evil, but as an inclination that can lead to evil. The rabbis say that the inclination to reproduce, or to create new things, or to succeed in life all come from this “evil” inclination, and therefore we need some amount of it in life even to survive, let alone to thrive. We need to have ambition and impulsivity and individual drive, but there’s a limit; though they don’t clarify exactly where those limits might be.

            The same rabbis say that if we took the Yetzer Hatov, the inclination for good, to an extreme we’d also have trouble. Because if we were always peaceful and calm, and never ambitious, we wouldn’t bother to grow crops, or have children, or make progress in science or art or philosophy, or even religion. We would be satisfied with whatever we had and peacefully die off. So the ideal is to find a balance between the two inclinations.

            But I’m not sure why the rabbis felt it necessary to call something “evil” that, in itself, isn’t evil at all, and to call something “good” which is more like peacefulness rather than goodness, and I think these names, and therefore these judgements on our inclinations towards creativity or peacefulness, are part of the reason why we struggle so much, both with accepting our ambitions and with accepting our need for rest.

“Rest is essential.”

            I’ve been thinking about this question of what’s really evil, and what is just called evil in our society, because I’ve been feeling a lot of envy for what other people have, or what they look like, or just who they are, and having these feelings has been making me feel like I’m a bad person, and stops me from being able to look at these feelings head on, because I’m afraid I will discover that I really am bad.

The Tenth Commandment says that we shouldn’t covet (or envy) what our neighbors have. The other commandments focus on doing or not doing something, but this one is about what we feel. Our ancestors, I guess, were afraid of their emotions and judged those emotions as if they were equal to bad action. But why?

Research on envy distinguishes between malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy is when you want to take something away from someone else, or hurt the person who has what you want, and benign envy is when you see that someone else has something you want and that motivates you to achieve that thing for yourself.       

But what if envy itself is neutral, not positive or negative, just a human emotion that we can feel, and learn from, without having to judge ourselves for having it? What if envy itself isn’t benign or malicious at all, and it’s only what we do with our envy that gets us in trouble. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the envy, and then go on to feel the disappointment or grief of not being able to have what we want, or the determination and passion that helps us keep working for what we want. What if, by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our envy, we would realize that we don’t want what someone else has, but we want to feel the way they seem to feel, and then we can start to work on finding a better way to reach that feeling.

            The problem is that most people, including me, have trouble looking at those shadow parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed by crushing guilt and self judgement. And who can sit with that for very long? And therefore we can’t get to all of the important insights that envy, and all of our other difficult and painful emotions, have to offer us.

“What’s guilt?”

The fact is, the danger doesn’t come from envy but from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy. If I can sit with the envy long enough, it can tell me what matters to me and what I want to change in my life or in the world around me.

Envy has been a constant companion for me, so maybe that’s why I take the Tenth Commandment so personally, and feel so judged by it. It feels as if God is leaning down from Mount Sinai and pointing a big finger at me and saying: you, you’re the bad one. But I can’t help feeling envious. I envy people who are healthy, or who grew up feeling safe, or who’ve had better luck in love and in their careers. But feeling envious is not the same as taking an evil or hurtful action towards another person.

            Our fear that our emotions will take over and consume us is clearly old, both ancient in our society and old in our lifetimes, from childhood, when we had so little ability to manage the emotions overwhelming our little bodies.

            But if we, as adults, can’t distinguish between our feelings and our actions, and call both equally evil, then we will forget to distinguish between the people who choose to act in destructive ways and the people who don’t, because we will think we are all the same. And if we stay in that place, then we won’t be able to take any real responsibility for how we react to our emotions, and that space between feeling and action, where we have the opportunity to choose the path we will take, goes unexplored.

            I think what the rabbis were pointing to in the Yetzer Harah and the Yetzer Hatov is that they are inclinations, not acts; having an inclination, or a longing, or even a need, does not determine the action we will take as a result. It informs it, yes, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable. And we are so lucky to have these emotions and inclinations, these little angels (though definitely more than just two extremes, I think) sitting on our shoulders and telling us the more complex picture of what we feel and what we want, so that we can look at our feelings and look at the facts before we choose how to act.

            I just wish we could give these inclinations better names, like, I don’t know, Maude and Henry, so we could treat them like the friends and confidants that they are meant to be, and not as the strangers, called Good and Evil, that they almost never really represent.

“We won’t have to share our chicken treats with Maude and Henry, will we?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

54 responses »

  1. Envy and coveting is such a big and complex matter to wrap my head around. It’s not just acting on envy, but envy itself we’re commanded not to accede to. I’m grateful we can approach God for mercy to pardon our sin and His grace to purify our souls.

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  2. I don’t know, Rachel. I always hear ‘be careful what you wish for’ in my head. Things are not always what they seem. Maybe as I get older, I’m, honestly, just thankful for getting older and think that in the long run, I am really OK. But I agree that Maude and Henry would be awesome names!

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  3. A very interesting point of view Rachel. I love how your posts are always so instructive and measured.

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  4. IMO everybody feels envious from time to time. I like that you wrote that “the danger is from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy.” This makes sense.

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  5. Hmm…from how I see it, it would be more appropriate to term them as “order” and “chaos”, much like the concept of yin and yang. Leaning fully towards one isn’t the ideal, so the concept of the golden mean (based on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”) comes in.

    (On a side note, I really like your posts when Cricket and Ellie put in their two cents on what you discuss!)

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  6. So much wisdom in this post!

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  7. As I’ve aged, my thoughts of envy have turned into wishful thinking and admiration.

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  8. I love this post, I think this is something a lot of others struggle with, religious or not.

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  9. I wonder if you are missing the fact that there are people who envy you! You are a writer with a wealth of material; you are thoughtful and insightful; you are talented (in singing and teaching); you are persistent (in learning and searching for meaning), etc. And these are just the things I glean from your writing. How much more there is to you!

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  10. This is a really interesting and thought-provoking article. So much I want to comment on! Maybe I’ll write a whole blog post about it. Thank you for this, and don’t give Harold and Maude the dogs’ chicken treats.

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  11. I once told someone I was envious of them and they got mad. Even though my intent was without malice, envy seems to get a bad reputation which is unfortunate. Essentially I was yearning for what they had (in this case homeownership).

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  12. Reblogged this on Ramblings and Ruminations and commented:
    Having written a blog article not so long ago about jealousy and envy, this article really opened my eyes to a completely different way to examine this!

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  13. Rachel, this blog article has given me a completely different perspective on something I, too, have been struggling with. I HAD TO reblog it so that my readers can read it as well. Thank you!

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  14. The comment by the dogs (we know that’s what they’re thinking, LOL!) shows even dogs have these inclinations and decisions to make from them. And it’s interesting to watch. While Lucy usually chooses to share, once in a while I hear a growl of warning to the other dogs to leave her food/treat alone.

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  15. I like your idea of changing the names to Maude and Henry. It humanizes these concepts. And after all we are human with human emotions. From following your blog for many years now I can say with confidence you are a good person. If you have moments or periods of Maude and Henry cut yourself some slack, nobody’s perfect except in the eyes of our dogs. 🐾

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  16. I don’t know if you like science fiction movies, but you may be interested to watch the 2005 movie Serenity (which was the movie that wrapped up a TV series called Firefly). I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but the Yetzer Hara concept you wrote about is very important in that movie! I would love to know if writer/director Joss Whedon is familiar with that concept.

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  17. You are good. You are beautiful. You are special. Keep being who you are.

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  18. Loved this walk through the perils of good and evil, devils and angels, right and wrong, Maude and Henry! I agree with all of your sweet pup’s comments, especially “Why is everything so complicated!” Take care and keep up the good self care, Rachel. 🐾

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  19. I love that you sat with the feelings enough to share this thoughtful article and I learned something from the Jewish faith.
    Thank you. It takes some self study to examine even as much as you have. Yesterday I was sitting with my perception of other people’s envy as something to be feared. And the day before, I was sitting with old guilt , and boy was I pushing it away! Such a tough one.

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  20. Those of us who have endured abuse are not loved any less by God. The opportunities others have had may seem appealing to us (especially if we feel they are out of reach). But God is fully capable of providing us comfort and recompense, of restoring what the locust has eaten (Joel 2: 25).

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  21. Couldn’t help thinking of the central ideas of Buddhism while reading this fascinating post!

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  22. Interesting post. It definitely is our actions that matter most, rather than our feelings. Our feelings just lead us to the fork in our path that determines if we approach an issue in a healthy or unhealthy manner. Our feelings should be treated with caution, but are not ultimately the problem.

    I didn’t realize that you wrote a YA novel. Congrats! It sounds fascinating.

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  23. Rachel, you’ve thought a lot about these issues, and it looks like you’ve had some insightful teachers as well. I don’t think I’ve heard the discussion on envy crouched is just these terms before, and you’ve given me a lot to think about.

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  24. Just what I needed this morning. Your introspection and thoughtfulness helped me see through something and helps a bitter pill go down easier.

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  25. This post is so thought provoking and insightful. I definitely need to read it a second time. Very good!

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  26. Great description of the YR and the YT! I agree about the YR ‘s name – I generally translate it as “the selfish inclination” because I think that’s more accurate.

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  27. It reminds me of the New Testament verse that gets misinterpreted. Money isn’t the root of all evil — the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.

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  28. Rachel, in all the posts of yours that I have read I have never even got a whiff that you might be a ‘bad’ person. Of course it is easy to say this from afar, but over the years I have gradually learned that we are who we are and need to accept our limitations whilst still aiming high. I have wept, felt cast aside, and really envied what appears to be the good fortune of others. At the end of the day though, when I run through even the smallest things I am grateful for, I know that there is much in my life to be happy about. I enjoy the way you wrestle with these difficult concepts and can only wish you well.

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