Indeed, a study not long ago showed that people are happier if they are earning $25,000 and their neighbor $50,000 – than if the sums are doubled and they earn $50,000 and their neighbors earn $100,000. Why? After all, though the income gap has widened, they too are earning more money.
For only one reason, and it’s what greases the wheels of much of the discontent in America and across the globe today: jealousy. What a deadly character trait. Envy ruins lives, leaves people dejected and despondent, and is the cause of wars and much suffering,
Envy is the very antithesis of the Sukkot holiday we just celebrated. Rav Dessler writes famously that Sukkot reflects bitul hayesh, the nullification of the material. Has anyone ever walked into someone’s sukkah and said: “This is beautiful – I am so jealous, I wish I had a sukkah like this”? Of course not. And why not? Because it is gone in a week, and is therefore defined as a temporary dwelling.
But that is the point – everything in this world is temporary, so why be jealous? Why covet what someone else has?
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 3a-b) states that in the future the nations of the world will be tested with the mitzvah of Sukkot. The nations are easily inflamed, and much of what they accomplish is triggered by jealousy. So God burns the sun on them as if it is the height of summer – the sun, which to us appears to be the most permanent fixture of the physical world. And they kick their sukkot on the way out, as if to say the only reality is the material world, of substance, and mergers and acquisitions – so why waste time and energy on something like the sukkah, which is temporary and cannot stoke our competitive juices?
If that regression will happen in the future, as the Gemara says, the good news is that that future is already here. And it is fostered by a heavy-handed government that speaks of charity and generosity as disguises for outright theft. Trillions of dollars spent in a war on poverty has created more poverty, not less. The poverty rate has increased since the war on poverty began, as well as fostered a cycle of multi-generational welfare dependency and a surfeit of broken homes.
* * *
As Jews, we perceive the material as temporary and tangential to life, and look to God as the only true source of our rights and values. To us, life is blissful when, as in the time of King Shlomo, “Yehuda and Yisrael dwelled in security, each person beneath his vine and his fig tree” (I Melachim 5:5) – each person content, satisfied and comfortable with himself and his neighbors, free of the burdens of jealousy and greed.
It is hard for a thinking Jew to generate much sympathy for the “demonize the rich” populism, for a number of reasons but especially because the Torah seems to like the rich (the Torah likes the poor too). It is one of the defining, oft-repeated themes of Avraham’s life – and maybe a great nisayon as well. The Torah sees fit to emphasize that Avraham leaves Charan not only with his wife and nephew but also “with all the wealth they had amassed.” And he does well in Egypt – “laden, very heavy, with cattle, silver and gold.” Strange words – kaved me’od, not that he was wealthy, ashir, but kaved, heavy. Wealth can be a burden as well.
And Avraham rejects the gifts of the king of Sodom, so “you shouldn’t say, ‘I made Avraham rich.’ ” And the Torah underscores that both Yitzchak and Yaakov (and Moshe) were wealthy, all of which gave them credibility with their contemporaries. In the most far-reaching comment, Avraham is told his descendants would be enslaved in a land not theirs for 400 years, “after which they will leave with great wealth.” But why is this important? And why does the Torah speak of wealth of our ancestors again and again?