How Not to Feel Threatened by Other People’s Success
“If we tend to feel jealous, then we have very little chance of ever being happy and content.”
I have a relative who served as the president of a yeshiva. Like all people in such positions, he did not receive a penny for the countless hours he invested on behalf of the institution.
I vividly recall the time when I was walking with him on Ocean Parkway, and someone from the community approached him and said, “You’re so-and-so, right, the president of Yeshiva such-and-such?”
My relative answered in the affirmative, bracing himself for the all-too-familiar tirade of complaints.
“I want to tell you how amazing the yeshiva is,” the man said. “My son learns there and is doing so well. It does such a great job. Thank you!”
My relative replied, “Baruch shehehiyanu vekiyimanu vehigianu lazman hazeh” – the blessing recited over a special, exciting event.
“This has never happened before,” he said. “Usually, when people come up to me, it’s to complain. Never until now has someone come to express gratitude.”
As the old expression goes, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.”
When somebody serves in any form of public capacity, no matter how selflessly and hard he works, no matter how genuine and sincere he is in his devotion to the community, he is going to get criticized, maligned and blamed for something, or for a lot of things.
Pinhas – the Maligned Hero of the Jewish People
This month we read the tragic story of Ba’al Pe’or, when the nation of Moav, together with its ally, Midyan, lured Beneh Yisrael to idolatry and immorality. Realizing that Gd was protecting Beneh Yisrael, these enemies understood that the only way to defeat Beneh Yisrael is by arousing Gd’s anger against them. This nefarious plot succeeded, and Gd unleashed a plague that killed tens of thousands among Beneh Yisrael.
The devastation ended only when Pinhas (a grandson of the kohen gadol, Aharon) slew a prominent member of the nation – the leader of one of the tribes – who was committing a public sinful act with a princess of Moav. At that moment, Gd ended the plague.
Pinhas should have been hailed as a hero. He risked his life – publicly confronting a public official – for the sake of rescuing the nation. Gd later affirmed to Moshe that Pinhas saved Beneh Yisrael, as Gd would have otherwise annihilated them entirely.
And yet, as our Sages teach, Pinhas received no praise or accolades from the people. To the contrary, he was maligned. People said things to the effect of, “Who does this guy think he is?” “What does he think he’s doing?” “’Oh, so now he thinks he’s so religious!”
We see this so often. People volunteer, make sacrifices, and do things for the benefit of the community, and instead of receiving credit, compliments and gratitude, they receive scorn and criticism. That’s the way it is.
Why? Why are people so harsh on sincere, selfless public servants?
In one word: jealousy.
When we see people achieve and do great things, it makes us insecure. We feel uneasy. Other people’s success has the effect of highlighting what we perceive as our own lack of success. It’s only natural for us to ask ourselves when seeing other people’s accomplishments why we aren’t also accomplishing.
But rather than answer those questions honestly, we instead rush to defend our embattled egos. And the way we do that is by finding fault in the accomplished person. Giving him the praise and compliments he deserves reinforces the question of, “Why am I not doing something that great?” – a question that makes us very uncomfortable. And so to protect ourselves from this uncomfortable question, we criticize and condemn, instead of appreciating and respecting the person’s work.
It was too painful for the people to realize that the entire nation would have been destroyed because of their grievous sins if not for Pinhas’ heroism. And so to protect themselves from that pain, they criticized him, instead of honoring him. So many of us have this same reaction when we see somebody doing great things. We begin to feel threatened by his success – and so we find fault and we find reasons to complain about him.
The Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot (4:21) lists jealousy among the three character traits which “remove a person from the world” – meaning, that can ruin a person’s life. If we tend to feel jealous, then we have very little chance of ever being happy and content. This is because no matter what we have, there will be those who have more, and no matter what we achieve, there will be those who achieve more. If we are not able to be happy with our achievements without comparing ourselves to other people, then we will never be happy. It’s that simple.
That insecurity we feel when we see other people’s success and accomplishments is terribly destructive. It undermines our chances of experiencing contentment and feeling fulfilled.
Strange as this sounds, I am proud to say that this problem is especially common in our community. I say I am proud because our community is blessed with so many extraordinarily accomplished individuals, of whom we should all feel proud. Unfortunately, however, instead of feeling proud, many people feel threatened by, and thus jealous of, the successes of these accomplished individuals. And this leads them to resent them, to complain about them, to criticize them, and to dislike them.
What, then, is the solution? What can we do to avoid this natural tendency to feel threatened by other people’s success, instead of celebrating their success?
Everyone Has Problems
The story is told of a pauper who sat outside the room of a well-known hassidic rebbe as people came to ask for his blessing. After observing the people coming in and out for a long while, the pauper noticed a troubling pattern: the poor people went into the rebbe’s room and left very quickly, after just a minute or two, whereas the wealthy people stayed with the rebbe for a long time, sometimes for an hour or more.
The peasant was infuriated. He could not believe the favoritism. This is a holy rabbi? Somebody who gives wealthy people more time and respect than he gives the poor? What a sham!
Unable to contain himself, the pauper finally burst into the rebbe’s room and started shouting at him.
“What kind of business is this,” he bellowed, “giving your wealthy visitors all the time in the world, and kicking out the poor visitors after a minute?!?”
“Please, let me explain,” the rebbe gently replied.
“When a poor person comes to me for help, it is very clear and obvious what he needs. I see right away what his problems are. And so the process is very quick – I give him my heartfelt blessing, and I pray for him.
“But when a wealthy person comes, he seems not to have any problems. He presents himself with poise and confidence, as if everything is perfect. But I know this isn’t true. Everyone has problems. So I take the time to talk to the man about his life until eventually he breaks down crying, and tells me his problems so I can bless him and pray for him.”
This is vitally important for us to remember: every single person, no matter who he is, no matter how much money he has, no matter how famous he is, no matter how many awards he’s received, and no matter how many distinguished positions he’s held, has problems.
Some people wear their problems on their sleeves, and so we don’t feel envious of them. Others, though – usually wealthy and accomplished people – project an especially secure, confident image, making it seem as though they have their lives completely under control, and have nothing troubling them. But this image is misleading. They, like the rest of us, have problems. We should not be jealous of somebody’s success unless we also want his problems. And for all we know, his problems are far worse than ours.
What’s It Got to Do With Me?
But there’s also another way to avoid jealousy, another reason not to feel threatened by another person’s success.
Quite simply: it has nothing to do with us.
Gd has enough wealth and enough honor for everyone. If another person is successful, this does not mean that we can’t also be successful. If somebody else is accomplished in one area, we can accomplish in a different area. His success does not affect us.
And besides, what’s our jealousy and resentment going to achieve, anyway?
If there is somebody who is successful and accomplished, why shouldn’t we compliment him, and encourage him to continue? Is it not in the world’s best interest to have successful and accomplished people? If we complain, resent and insult him, the only thing we might achieve is discourage him from doing more. And how will that help us? Are we going to accomplish more if somebody else accomplishes less? Of course not. There’s enough room in this imperfect world for all of us to accomplish great things. We should encourage, not resent, the success of others, because we all stand to benefit from their success.
Let’s not ruin our lives by destructive jealousy. When we see the “Pinhas’” around us, those who give a lot of time and energy for the public good, instead of finding what to complain about, let’s express our appreciation and respect. Let us achieve the most we can and encourage others to do the same, so we can all together become the greatest people that we can be.