One of the most beautiful human virtues is the ability to enjoy the achievements of others and encourage them to reach even higher goals. It’s one of the greatest pleasures a person can experience.
But as a tragic story in the Torah reveals, it is extremely hard to actually do so. When reading about Korach’s rebellion against Moshe, we learn what can happen to even the loftiest among us if we fail to practice this virtue.
Korach strongly objected to Moshe’s leadership, his divine mission, and his standing in the community. While he knew very well that Moshe was the most humble man in the world, that God had appointed him, and that he had tried to decline this honor on several occasions, Korach still could not stop himself from demeaning Moshe. The motive for his behavior was nothing short of uncompromising jealousy.
Korach, one of the greatest men of his generation, fell so low that he lost all sense of equilibrium, turned to character assassination of Moshe, and ultimately paid with his life. He could not bring himself to enjoy or even admit Moshe’s achievements. Instead of being proud that he was affiliated with this man of God, all he could do was speak evil of him.
Envy blinded him to such an extent that he did not even realize what had caused him to fall so low. Instead, he convinced himself and others that his objections to Moshe’s leadership were entirely justified. His jealousy made it impossible for him to see that he was actually destroying his own reputation and, above all, his own happiness. “The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves,” said William Penn. (1)
It seems very difficult to enjoy someone else’s achievement, although to do so is the noblest of acts. It takes courage, humility, and integrity.
Regrettably, many of us deny ourselves this happiness. We fall into the abyss of envy and despicable feelings that we cannot control. We prefer criticism and even character assassination to accomplish our goals. It often seems like the more exceptional another’s achievement, the stronger our jealousy.
We will undermine, deny, and even manipulate the successes of others in the belief that by doing so we build ourselves up and become more important. In the words of Francis Bacon, “He that cannot possibly mend his own case will do what he can to impair another’s.” (2)
Above all, we often judge someone else’s accomplishments wanting to show that we know it all better, when in fact we do not.
Sure, we don’t mind when others make great contributions in areas that are not our expertise. After all, they are not undermining our prestige. But when they dare to overstep that boundary and enter our realm, all hell will break lose. Who are they to achieve something in a field where I am an authority?
The biggest tragedy is that we are completely oblivious to any motive for our behavior, and we feel too great to even contemplate such a possibility.
All must be done to discredit this person. (It simply cannot be that they are as clever as that, or that they have that kind of knowledge!) And if that requires changing the facts, so be it. We convince ourselves that this must be the truth.
Most of the time these strategies work very well, since there will be many fellow travelers who will happily jump on the bandwagon. They will encourage this character assassination because it helps them, as well, to unload their jealous feelings. They just needed someone to take the initiative.
This becomes clear in the story of Korach who gets a multitude of followers to oppose Moshe. Completely unawares, Korach, who initiated the incitement, now becomes its victim. To his surprise, he not only gains the approval of his friends but they also start heaping even more insults on Moshe than he ever expected. This only strengthens him, and while he may have had doubts at the beginning of his campaign, he can now assure himself that he’s been right all along. No greater joy than that! What he doesn’t realize is that he’s been manipulated by his friends while convincing himself otherwise. He allowed himself to be used by his friends while thinking that he was using them.
But Korach is not the only one to fall into this pit. Throughout human history we are shown that at certain moments in our lives we all fall victim to this plight, especially when we realize that the other is becoming too successful and being given too much respect.
We are even prepared to do this to our best friends, especially when they have the chutzpah to go their own way and disagree with us. We realize that we have lost our power over them, and nothing irritates us more than that. After all, they are only allowed to enjoy our true friendship as long as they do and say what we want them to do and say.
We scoff at their independence and freedom and will do anything to stop them from expressing their own opinions. It will never occur to us that by doing so we simply embarrass ourselves, because jealousy blinds us to everything and cleverly hides all our inner motives.
A remarkable aspect of this phenomenon is that we firmly believe it can only happen to someone else but not to us. We are too sophisticated and intelligent to fall into this pit!
But as the story of Korach teaches us, it is specifically with the “mighty ones” that the chances for adopting such ugly behavior are exceedingly high.
When watching world leaders, governments, the academic world, and even the Jewish world, we see symptoms of this repugnant conduct. And while it also happens among the average population, it is with the “mighty ones” that the consequences are much more serious.
It is one thing if someone is jealous of another’s achievement and this will have no serious consequences for the larger community. But when a person of great stature, such as Korach, is overpowered by this character trait, it causes considerable damage.
Besides the terrible example that this person sets for younger people, it could actually destroy a very important contribution to society made by someone else. This is achieved largely by tearing down the other person’s image in the eyes of the public. It is a shameful misuse of one’s authority and standing in the community, especially when this “Korach-like” figure is otherwise one of integrity and dignity. In that case the situation is much worse. It is a camouflaged jealousy, which most people are unable to detect and therefore fall right into the trap without even being aware of it. It works wonders.
Whether these Korach-like people are government officials, prestigious professors, or influential members of the clergy, they act exactly as a child does when overcome with jealousy. They run to the school principal and complain about their friend. They need the principal to agree with them so as to confirm their own self-worth and undetected jealousy. However, they can only do this by distorting facts, making degrading remarks about other people, and fabricating stories so as to put their friend in a bad light. This is especially true when they really do have limited knowledge of the topic at hand and cannot accept the idea that the other really does know more about it then they do.
All of this happened to Korach. Instead of realizing his enormous mistake, he most likely insisted that he was right, even when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed him up alive, together with all his co-participants. (3)
Yes, Korach would have had every right in the world to disagree with Moshe, if it had come from a place of honesty and respect. Disagreement is encouraged in Judaism. If not for controversy, Judaism would have long disappeared. The great disputes between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, Rava and Abaye, and many others until this very day, serve as proof beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But once envy enters the discussion, all further debate becomes impossible and remains stagnant.
The only thing the object of envy can do is remember the famous observation of Greek historian Herodotus: It is better to be envied than pitied.
People require, for their own happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but also the joy of seeing another’s success. Once they have reached that point, they have become rich. A difficult but uplifting task.
(1) “Of Jealousy,” Fruits of Solitude, Vol. 1 (The Harvard Classics, 1909-14) Part 3, No. 190.
(2) “Essays, Civil and Moral: Of Envy,” The Works of Lord Bacon, Volume 1 (London: William Ball, Paternoster Row, 1838) p. 267.
(3) Bamidbar 16:32.