When we are little, we grow by looking at others and imitating them. We don’t want to harm them or deny their desirable traits or possessions, but rather to have what they have and do what they do. This is healthy envy; it develops us and drives us forward. When we begin to want to have more than others, control others, or deny others what they have, this is when envy, the engine of growth, becomes the agent of destruction.
Envy that is attached to a desire to destroy others is the egoism that is destroying us. Throughout history, countries have been competing with each other, driven by this ruinous force, and have wrought pain and anguish on each other out of their desire to be at the top of the world.
We cannot uproot this force; it is inherent in our nature. What we can and should do is harness it the same way children use it to develop themselves.
In order to learn how to use it constructively, we first have to realize that when we maim or harm others, we are harming ourselves. We have to come to feel the truth of our interconnectedness, that we are all parts of a single system, a mechanism whose units are perfectly intertwined and balanced. It is like a complicated machine with billions of pieces, all necessary for the smooth operation of the machine. When you maim one unit, you have maimed the entire machine, of which you yourself are a part.
Think of the human body. There are approximately 10 trillion cells in the human body. These are organized into numerous tissues, organs, and organ systems. Can you imagine what would happen if these tissues and organs turned against each other? This is exactly what we have been doing to each other every day for thousands of years. Is it a wonder that the world we live in can barely sustain us?
My teacher’s father, the great 20th century kabbalist Baal HaSulam, wrote extensively about the need to send people back to school and reeducate them. He meant that we should learn how to work with our egos. At the moment, we use the knowledge that we have to harm others, and in so doing, we harm ourselves. The coronavirus is just the first example of the type of global blows that will become increasingly frequent until we realize that we cannot harm others since it hurts us, too. Our ruinous envy of our neighbors on the personal, social, and international levels is destroying us. We must reeducate ourselves and cater to our envy only when it motivates us to grow, but not at the expense of others. This is what Baal HaSulam meant when he wrote that we must go back to school.
Education seems like a slow and gradual process, but there are shortcuts we can take. Because we’re all connected, parts of one machine, when we contemplate a notion, others begin to contemplate it, too, even if they don’t hear it from us. When we convey that thought to others, we convey it far beyond the people we communicate with, as the idea begins to spread throughout the human web, throughout the system. Merely thinking about our interdependence and the need to stop our ruinous envy sends ripples through the system that generate that thought in others, too. All of a sudden, people will start talking about it, as if it is their own idea. They won’t know it, but it will have come from you. When we learn how to work with envy constructively, then our path to success is paved.