Photo Credit: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

When I was a senior in high school, I was captain of the basketball team. Our season was going extremely well and we were destined to play in Madison Square Garden for the championship. Suddenly, in March, a month before the playoffs, my leg was shattered in a silly pick-up soccer game in school. A younger player stepped in for me and played amazingly well. Ultimately, we lost the championship in Madison Square Garden by two points.

I was crushed when I learned I would basically miss the rest of the season. I recall my father coming to speak with me and offering some tough love. He shared a key insight I have taken with me for many years now. He said “Everyone is replaceable” and “life isn’t always fair.” He challenged me to accept my personal disappointment and yet still be happy for my teammates.


It was a humbling realization early in life that “harbeh shluchim leMakom” – Hashem has many agents to accomplish all types of things in His world.

Psychologists in the secular world have gone to town on the concept of a “mid-life crisis.” Students of Freud even suggest that people begin to reflect upon impending death at this stage of existence. Minimally, people begin to reflect upon accomplishments and where they have fallen short. This can lead to great disappointment and sometimes even mild depression. These difficult feelings are exacerbated when watching others succeed, even excel, where we have fallen short.

A few months ago, I reached an age where I would easily accept an offer from Hashem to “arrive at double that age and then leave the stage.” The clock is ticking onward with little mercy or patience. Thankfully, it is no crisis but rather an inflection point. It is a time where I have begun to take stock of where I have been and where I would like to go. In areas of challenge or disappointment, I hear the echo of my father’s words that “life isn’t always fair” and “everyone is replaceable.” I again recognize the opportunity and challenge of watching others succeed where I may have fallen a little short.

As I have matured, I have inculcated a corollary of sorts to my father’s insight. It is to never compare yourself to anyone else. This can be a perpetual challenge, particularly highlighted by the advent of social media and the self-promotion constantly surrounding us.

A great formulation to communicate this principle is:

“Life is the most difficult exam. Many people fail because they try to copy others, not realizing that everyone had a different question paper.”

I think for many this is one of life’s great challenges. We interact with others constantly. We see their lives as compared to ours. It is rather easy to fall into the trap of trying to “cheat on the exam.”

There is special blessing we give our children once a year, on Erev Yom Kippur. It has a formulation that “enecha lenochach yabitu” – the eyes of our children should look straight ahead. I heard in the name of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, that this means we are blessing them to stay focused on their own conceptual “daled amos” and not to look around and compare lots with their neighbor. An amazing message imparted at the holiest and purest time of year, when we see the truth in all its clarity.

We are taught in Pirkei Avos that jealousy is one of three qualities that remove us from “the world.” Some explain this to mean both this world and the next. It is also a Talmudic dictum that people of similar professional trades harbor disdain for each other.

It seems there is a natural predilection to want to supersede the success and accomplishments of others we interact with or are surrounded by. Particularly, I have found that those of us who grew up as athletes tend to possess quite the competitive streak.

Pirkei Avos also provides an antidote or cure to this malady.

The Mishnah describes a wealthy person as happy with his or her lot. Wealthy in rabbinic parlance isn’t Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or even some mega-philanthropist we know in our community but rather a determination to strengthen ourselves to stay within our conceptual daled amos and marvel at our own good fortune.

It is easier to appreciate what we have when reflecting on a Gemara in Berachos. It makes absolutely clear that nobody can touch the success of another, no matter how hard he or she might try. Hashem measures out for each of us exactly what we are entitled to, nothing more and nothing less.

This past Sukkos I was fortunate to serve as scholar in residence on a program in Mexico. The program had two levels of hotel to choose from. The staff was placed in a hotel that was a little “lower’ than the two reserved for paying guests. That entire week, guests we became close with beseeched us to visit and see their amazing accommodations. My wife and I resisted. Although our curiosity was peaked, we were thrilled with our resort. If genuinely happy, why open yourself up to feeling negatively because someone else has it better? We were happy for them and happy for ourselves as well. No need at all to compare.

This world is filled with tests. In fact, it is called “Olam Hanisayon.” We learn also in Avos that Avraham had ten tests and that he passed them all. The Nesivos Shalom suggests we each have our own ten tests throughout our lives just as Avraham did.

I would add there are obvious or revealed tests and hidden or subtler tests.

That the Torah does not articulate each of the ten tests in the text of Bereishis communicates an interesting dynamic. We all have obvious tests that meet the eye of all who see – and then there are more subtle tests that linger beneath the surface. Nobody is completely absolved from being tested. The Torah, by not detailing in the text all the tests of Avraham, is alluding to this idea. The perpetual test of keeping a healthy perspective in interacting with others is obscured from view at times and yet always lingers beneath the surface.

There is actually a higher level than just staying inner focused and not comparing ourselves to others. The higher level, as I learned at the end of high school, is to actually rejoice for another’s success. To appreciate how much a specific “berachah” means to another person and really feeling happy for his or her accomplishment. This isn’t easy, especially when you desired that same accomplishment. It requires significant work, but it is a goal to aspire toward.

This is the level of Aharon Hakohen, who rejoiced in the elevation of his younger brother Moshe above himself when Moshe was selected to lead the Jewish people from Egypt. The Torah describes it as “samach belibo” – rejoicing in his heart – communicating that it was a pure and authentic joy from a place of genuine feeling. It wasn’t just a superficial putting on of a good or brave face while feeling deep pain inside.

R’ Binyomin Eisnberger, shlita, visited the Upper West Side for Shabbos a few years ago. There must have been more than three hundred people in the room on Friday night at the oneg. He began his remarks by complimenting the rabbanim of the community for welcoming him and feeling joy in his having inspired the kehilla, invoking the example of Moshe and Aharon. I thought to myself, what impetus or “hava amina” was there for him to say this? Was he concerned a few rabbanim would feel badly that an outsider could attract so many?

Upon reflection, I realized that if the true motivation is Kavod Shamayim, and Hashem’s honor is enhanced by the success of others, then why not be happy? Of course if the motivation is personal honor, it certainly will be painful when we feel usurped by another.

Often if we take a step back we will realize that our negative feelings can be petty and self-serving. R. Eisenberger was acknowledging that while it is human to feel slighted, the community possessed rabbanim of superior middos, motivated by heavenly honor rather than their own.

Ultimately, the famous story of R’ Zusha must carry the day. Hashem doesn’t care whether we are all ultimately Moshe Rabbeinu. He cares that we be a good Zusha or Dovid or Sarah or Malka. The ultimate test when all is said and done is purely about our own potential and how we maximize it. Hashem won’t compare us to anyone else, so we certainly shouldn’t compare ourselves either.

There is the story of an individual who complains to his rebbe that if only he had the heart of the Baal Yesod Veshoresh Haavodah, the brain of the Shagas Aryeh, and the middos of R’ Yisroel Salanter, he could accomplish so much in terms of Avodas Hashem. The Rebbe responded, to the surprise of the talmid, “With your mind and your heart and your middos you can also accomplish great things in serving Hashem.”

All we need to do in order to experience spiritual success is look straight ahead with clear eyes and full hearts. The man in the mirror is the only other entity that is of any concern.

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Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the author of two books, most recently 'Together Again,' exploring our post pandemic relationships. He hosts The Jewish Philanthropy Podcast and is a Senior Relationship Officer at Yachad. His website is