From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
Explaining How we May Achieve the Challenging Mitzvah of not Being Envious by Strengthening Our Belief
This Shabbat we shall read about the receiving of the Torah and how Am Yisrael stood at Sinai. “In the third month after Am Yisrael left Egypt…The third day arrived. There was thunder and lightning in the morning…and an extremely loud blast of a ram’s horn. The people in the camp trembled…There was the sound of a ram’s horn, increasing in volume to a great degree. Moshe spoke, and Hashem replied with a Voice” (Shemot 19:1,16,19).
In the Ten Commandments it states, “Do not be envious” (Shemot 20:13) about which Rabbeinu Avraham Ibn Ezra z”l (1089/92-1164/67) asked, how may the Torah command a person something that is not in their ability to achieve? For it is impossible that a person won’t be envious in his heart when he sees something which is very nice. If so, how may the Torah require a person to do something that he is unable?
In order to answer this, the rav explains a great fundamental point in belief. That is that a person should know and believe that life, children and livelihood aren’t dependent on a person’s merit or his efforts for them. Rather, everything is in Heaven’s hands. What is decreed for him is from above and if it is decreed for him to receive this then he will receive it without delay, and if it isn’t decreed for him, then whatever efforts he may expend to receive it, they won’t help and it will not come to him. A person must instil this belief in his heart. When he believes with a complete belief in this fundamental, then he will no longer be envious of other people’s things, not even in his heart. For he knows that if this is destined to reach him then it will come without delay and if it isn’t his due, then no amount of effort will enable him to acquire it.
The rav cites an analogy. It won’t enter a villager’s mind to marry the king’s daughter, for he knows such a things is unachievable. And just as a person doesn’t yearn to fly in the sky like a bird, for he knows that he will never have wings, and he doesn’t even desire this in his heart, likewise, when he instils in himself the belief that whether it is for money, a woman, or anything else in the world, he will not acquire it due to his intellect or scheming, rather it is dependent only through the hands of Heaven. If he is meant to have it he will receive it, and if it isn’t meant to be his, then he has no change of getting it. So he has no reason to be envious in his heart. This is essentially what the Torah commands when it states, “Do not be envious”.
It is related about Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra that he was a destitute pauper and his whole life he lived in penury. His good friend was Rambam z”l who wanted to assist him financially. But Rav Ibn Ezra refused any financial help from others. Rambam sat and thought how he may help his good friend without his knowledge. He devised a clever plan. Everyday Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra goes to pray Shacharit in the Bet Kenesset near his home. On his way he crosses a nearby bridge. I will place the money on the bridge, since the halachah is that anyone who finds scattered money may keep it, then Rav Ibn Ezra will be able to keep the money according to the “laws of finding” and it won’t therefore be tzedakah.
He said he would do it and indeed he did it. The next day Rambam got up early and went to the bridge. Close to the time that Rav Ibn Ezra would be walking there, he approached the spot and scattered money. He immediately hid behind a nearby tree and waited for his good friend to arrive. Immediately Rav Ibn Ezra arrived, however, much to Rambam’s surprise, he saw his good friend crossing the bridge with his eyes closed and he had no knowledge of the money that had been specially placed there for him. Immediately Rambam turned to his good friend and asked him, “Why did you cross the bridge today with your eyes closed?” Rav Ibn Ezra responded, “Every day I cross the bridge to go to the Bet Kenesset and today I said to myself it would be interesting if I were able to cross the bridge with my eyes closed. And so I did. Indeed I succeeded in crossing the bridge with my eyes closed.” Rambam heard this and told Rav Ibn Ezra what he had prepared for him on the bridge. The rav replied to him with his fundamental principle that a person only receives what is destined for him, and what he isn’t meant to get, no amount of effort in the world will help. And even if he succeeds in receiving something that he shouldn’t have, then it will be taken from him through other means.
Rav Chaim Volozhin z”l (1749-1821) once had a large gathering of rabbanim at his home, which included many rashei yeshivot and the great rabbanim of the time. While they were sitting there, one of the older rabbanim got up, and as he got up to speak he inadvertently dragged the tablecloth off the table, and all the glasses and bottles fell to the ground. Immediately, all those present bent down to lift up the items that had fallen. Rav Chaim arose and said, “Stop! You should know that if I have in my home one coin that I am not entitled to and that should not be in my possession, then glasses and utensils will break. However, if all my money in my home is clean, then no utensil will break. And indeed all the utensils which fell are complete and nothing is broken.”
From all this we learn what a tremendous duty we have to strengthen ourselves with a complete faith and to live in tranquillity and at ease in the knowledge that there is Someone who guides our journey and all our lives for good and berachah.