“My Grass Will Always be Greener on My Side”

Chinuch and the Parsha by Rabbi Shmuel Wagner: In this week’s Parsha, Hashem forbids us of being jealous of any aspect of another’s life, but how can I not be envious of something that everyone around me seems to have in abundance and I so desperately yearn?

By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner – teacher at ULY Ocean Parkway

“Fertilior seges est alenis semper in agris.” So wrote a Roman poet more than 2,000 years ago. “The harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s fields.” In the 19th century, this morphed into the well-known idiom, “The grass is greener on the other side”.

I refer not to petty jealousy. I refer to matters integral to a constructive life: “I wish I had such a good [insert as appropriate:] family, income, marriage, positive outlook, as that guy!”

Yet, in this week’s Parsha, Hashem forbids us of being jealous of any aspect of another’s life, even when their ‘greener grass’ is so important to me and may even be beyond my control.

How can I be expected to fulfill this commandment of “לא תחמוד”? How can I not be envious of something that everyone around me seems to have in abundance and I so desperately yearn?

One reflexive defense is, “Who says that other person is really happy? Maybe it is only an appearance, an illusion formed by the superficial society we live in.”

With social media, this is quite easy to imagine. Let’s say a family I know posts pictures taking a beautiful family trip together. I become jealous, “Why isn’t my life as lucky as theirs?” But then I think, “This is just a picture; a lifeless image snapped to a perfect pose, providing the necessary fodder for the feed of their social status. Who could ever know how they were looking at each other the minutes before and after that picture…?”

In other words, “The grass is greener on the other side – but it is artificial grass.”

While this thought may be reflexive, this cannot be the solution to combat jealousy. Firstly, it would be delusional to think that everyone else’s happiness is always bogus. More importantly, how pitiful is it if the existence of happiness in my life is dependent on everyone else’s happiness being put down…

There is another solution, based on the words of the Pasuk. After enumerating examples of another’s items that are forbidden for one to desire, the Pasuk finishes off, “וכל אשר לרעך”, “And all that belongs to your friend.” As the well-known Vort on this goes, if you want to be jealous of one thing your friend has, you need to be ready to take their entire bundle. You need to live their whole life – and no one has it perfect. The same person you may be jealous of for one thing, may very well be jealous of you for something else. It might very well be that the family indeed had a wonderful trip, but did you know that one of them is ill? You are jealous of them for their money, and they are jealous of you for your health! This goes in circles until y’all realize that instead of focusing on what you are missing, focus on what you each have!

In other words, “The grass is greener on the other side – but the trees are taller on my side.”

The problem with this solution is, it does not directly address my feelings of jealousy from what they have; it instead diverts my attention to their suffering from what they do not have. But if I were to objectively separate the two, why should I not be jealous of what they do have?!

Allow me to suggest an answer, based on a fundamental topic in Chassidus.

Throughout the Zohar, there are two descriptions for Hashem’s energy entering this world: “Sovev kol olmin” (literally, “surrounding all the worlds”), and “Memalei kol olmin” (literally, “filling all the worlds”).

In truth, both enter the world, supplying it with life and energy. The difference between them, Chassidus explains, is as follows:

Sovev is such powerful G-dly energy, that if its effect would be consciously felt, we, as physical beings, would cease to exist. It is therefore given to us as a subconscious energy, without us feeling its effect. Hence the name “Sovev”, “surrounding”, as it is only relatable in an abstract way.

Memalei on the other hand, is limited G-dly energy. It is therefore able to sustain us in a way that we can consciously feel and appreciate. Hence the name, “Memalei”, “filling”, as we can connect to it on a palpable level.

An example for this would be the difference between the ways we are sustained by air vs. food. Although we inhale air and it enters our bodies, it is not (under normal circumstances) consciously felt – Sovev. Food on the other hand, is a very conscious experience – Memalei.

Now, because Sovev is too high to be consciously felt, it need not be tailored to fit any individual creation’s needs. All of creation receives Sovev energy equally. Conversely, being that the whole idea of Memalei is to be felt and appreciated by the recipient, it must vary as per the recipient’s needs.

Continuing with the above example, air – Sovev – is equally consumed by all. Air is not tailor-made to fit any individual requirements. Food on the other hand – Memalei – is a distinct experience, meant to be appreciated by each person as per their individual needs.

Imagine an aquatic creature, limited to a watery life, being jealous of a terrestrial animal’s body and freedom of moving on land. “Look at those majestic legs; how I wish I had a pair of those!” The unique lives of fish and sheep vary from one to the other depending on that kind’s individual needs to function. For the fish to be jealous of the sheep’s life is in essence being jealous of the other’s needs, of the methods of their sustenance and survival. How ludicrous!

When we desire something of someone else that we feel we should have, that means we are viewing what they have as ‘Sovev’, which should be equal for all. In truth however, the individual gifts we are all granted from Hashem are ‘Memalei’. Hashem has a unique plan for each of us as an individual, and what was given to one person for them to fulfill their mission and reach their potential, is not meant for someone else. It will not be beneficial for that other person.

Yes, this demands a powerful, essential trust and belief in Hashem that everything He does is for the good, and if He gave me one thing or did not give me another, this is His Master Plan, which is always, only good.[1] Indeed, Meforshim explain, this is how the end of the last of the Aseres Hadibros segues into the beginning of the first. “אנכי ה’ אלקיך”, the underlying belief that “I am Hashem Your G-d”, and “אלקיך” in the singular term: “I am Hashem who provides you, in a singular, individual sense, with your singular, individualized Memalei needs!”

What I must remind myself, is that someone else’s Memalei life is personalized for their needs and will not fit the glove for mine. Why then should I want theirs?! The same Hashem who gave them their Memalei, gave me too my own individually packaged bundle to deal with my needs. What I have is perfect – for me.

In short, “The grass is indeed greener on the other side – for the other side. For my side however – my grass is greener!”


[1] [This rightfully warrants a discussion for itself, how this does not at all preclude the allowance, and in fact the commandment, of Davening to Hashem for something you are missing…]

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