Archive for December 28th, 2009

By Dr. Michael Kagan

Last week my community in Jerusalem – Nava Tehila screened the musical Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat – one of my family’s favourites.  In the film a great emphasis is placed on jealousy – not only the obvious jealousy of the brothers towards Joseph but also of Potiphar’s jealousy towards Joseph, Potiphar’s servants jealousy towards Joseph, other prisoner’s jealousy towards Joseph, and even Pharaoh’s jealousy towards Joseph when he becomes the people’s saviour. When this theme of jealousy is taken back it can be seen that is seems to be the dominant emotion all the way back to Cain and Abel.

In every story everybody is jealous of somebody else.  In the case of Cain and Abel it is God that initiates the fatal jealousy by favouring one sacrifice over the other.  And this pattern repeats itself either through Divine intervention (closing the wombs) or through parental favouritism.  There’s even a fable (midrash) that extends this emotional response back to the creation of the sun and moon where the moon complains about not being the supreme ruler in response to which God makes the sun larger!

Favoritism creates in the favoured one a sense of pride leading to arrogance and in the unfavoured one a sense of inadequacy leading to hatred  (see Rachel and Leah, Jacob and Esau). Is this indeed the motivating emotion that drives human behaviour?  Is this what Torah is here to correct or promote or to challenge us with?

My teacher Rabbi Nechemia Polin pointed out that the tikun (fixing) for the family dysfunctionality caused by jealousy ends with Moses and Aaron.  Here the younger is the favoured one but Aaron shows no sign of jealousy.  In fact the two brothers seem to get along very well.  For Rav Nechemia the goal is summarized in the verse: “How good is it in my eyes that siblings are sitting also together.


But then we have the Jewish people being set up as the “Chosen People” which has triggered off jealousy amongst the nations that has continued even until today with terrible consequences.  Even the stated position towards this ‘choosing’ doesn’t seem to help the situation, namely: Do not think that this is because you are special but rather it is because I need a special job to be done.” And the Jewish joke: “God, please choose someone else already!”

As you know I was recently in Copenhagen for the Climate Change talks and it seems to me that a main block to progress towards an agreement that might reduce greenhouse emissions is the jealousy of the less industrialized nations towards the more industrialized nations  (using the language ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ seems to be a continuation of the deadly cycle).  “Why can’t we have the opportunity to be like you?” they cry.  “Because we are superior/better/privileged/luckier/more blessed than you.” comes the answer.

Perhaps the lesson is that favouritism implies greater responsibility towards God and towards others, and not superiority. Perhaps indeed the more better off nations must pay for this privilege by saving the world as brothers, in the way that Joseph eventually saves his family and all of Egypt from starvation.

Is that how it works?

Have a good week,



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