Finding Satisfaction in Others’ Success
Finding Satisfaction in Others’ Success
Parashat T'tzaveh opens with the following words. "You shall further instruct (V'atah t'tzaveh) the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly" (Exodus 27:20). Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her commentary, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, points out the unusual use of the pronoun V'atah, which she translates as, "And as for you," as we read in this excerpt:
With unusual emphasis, God turns to Moses: Ve-atta tetzaveh – "And as for you, you shall instruct . . . " The redundant pronoun in ve-atta, "and as for you," substitutes for the more usual imperative form, tzav – "Instruct . . ." or the simple future form, tetzaveh – "You shall instruct . . . " Such an insistent, abrupt focus on Moses has aroused much discussion among the traditional commentators on the Torah. . . . What shift in focus requires the sudden use of ve-atta, in a context where Moses is everywhere the subject of God's address?1
Zornberg's commentary continues with an important discussion about the relationship between Moses and Aaron that appears in Midrash Tanchuma. 2 The midrash relates how in seven days at the Burning Bush, Moses repeatedly declined God's instruction to go before Pharaoh as the people's representative, saying "Please send by the hand of another." Finally, God had enough. He told Moses "I will pay you back, when the Mishkan is built and you expect to serve as High Priest, and I say to you, 'Call Aaron that he will serve.' " Therefore, Moses called Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 9:1). The midrash continues:
Moses said to Aaron, "Thus said the Eternal to anoint you High Priest." Aaron said to him, "You have labored on the Mishkan and I am to become the High Priest!" [Moses] said to him, "By your life, even though you become High Priest, it is as if I have become [High Priest]. Just the same as you rejoiced when I rose to greatness, so I am happy at your rising."
And when was [Aaron] happy for him [Moses]? At the time that the Eternal said to him [Moses] "And I will send you to Pharaoh" (Exodus 3:10). The Eternal said to him [Moses], "The role is reserved for you." Moses said to him, "Please God send by another's hand. You are putting me over my older brother, and I will go to Pharaoh!" The Eternal said to him, "By your life, when you said it is fitting [that Aaron be chosen] because he is older than you are, in spite of this he rejoiced for you in his heart."
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai said the Eternal said, "The one who rejoiced in his heart for the success of his brother, place precious stones upon it [his heart]. As it is said, and Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel upon the breastpiece of decision on his heart" (Exodus 28:29).
Therefore, all seven days that Moses was busy with the Mishkan, he was dashing the blood and turning the fat parts into smoke. Then the Eternal said to him, "What are you thinking, that you will be anointed High Priest? Call Aaron and his sons to be anointed."
Moses expects to become High Priest, but his brother Aaron receives that role. Aaron, who is the older brother, might expect to be God's agent in liberating the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but instead Moses is called to do it. We might expect this to cause a rift in their relationship. But instead of this causing greater sibling rivalry, the midrash states that they rejoice in each other's success. This a remarkable and important midrash. How do we deal with disappointment? How do we resolve our feelings of loss at another's success?
My wife Elaine, who is a very wise woman, taught me a long time ago to ban the word "jealous" from my vocabulary. Even though she has never read this midrash, she intuitively understands its lesson. She rejoices in others' successes. Pirkei Avot 4:1 offers a similar view: Ben Zoma taught:Eizehu ashir? Hasamei-ach b'chelko, "Who is rich? One who is content with his [or her] lot." On Yom Kippur we read in Leviticus 19:18: v'lo titor . . . v'ahavata l'rei-acha kamocha, "and do not bear a grudge . . . love your neighbor as yourself"; but understanding this last phrase to mean "as if your neighbor were yourself" offers a similar sentiment. Imagine if we could make this our way of living.
While we can admire these sentiments and even assent to their wisdom they can be difficult to follow. We feel a real sense of loss when another gets a position or acknowledgment that we be believe is rightfully ours, and it is often difficult to put into practice the principle of setting jealousy aside and rejoicing in our own lot. One helpful strategy is to reframe our perspective. For example, if you seek a job or a promotion that goes to someone else, one way to understand that loss is that God intends something different for you. Obviously, this reframing requires a religious consciousness, but for those who are comfortable with that aspect, as I am, it can be a helpful technique. It is a way to remove the bitter taste of the loss, allowing you to move forward and--especially if the individual who received the position or acknowledgment is a friend or colleague--to rejoice in his or her success or accomplishment. Moses and Aaron offer us a paradigm for understanding gain and loss in our lives. I am grateful to Dr. Zornberg for her commentary, which gave me a new sense of the meaning of this parashah.
- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 2001) pp. 351-352; see also, Kindle edition
- Tanchuma Sh'mini 3
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Our parashah this week opens with the commandment to create the ner tamid – in biblical times, a regularly-lit lamp to illumine the Tabernacle, and in more modern times, a perpetually-lit lamp to illumine our synagogues. As Rabbi Knobel reflects, a midrashic reading of this opening verse offers a shining example of fraternal affirmation: Moses and Aaron rejoicing in the blessing each brings into the world. Beyond Aviva Zornberg's poignant exegesis of the opening word "V'atah," the commandment for this lamp becomes a symbol of unity not only of brother with brother, but also of humanity and divinity.
While our Torah text leaves the intent behind this daily-lit lamp in the shadows, generations of Rabbis sought to shed light on its meaning. In Sh'mot Rabbah (36:3) we read, "Just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so too one who gives to a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket. As it is written, 'For a commandment is a lamp, and Torah a light' (Prov. 6:23)." The ner tamid then becomes more than a tool for illumination – it reminds us of the infinite capacity of one flame to ignite innumerable others, without ever diminishing that first light. So too with our acts of giving and generosity. Our Torah and our commandments serve the same purpose as the ner tamid long ago: to ignite within us the desire to move the world out of darkness, bringing humanity together in a constant cascade of compassion. The fourteenth century Jewish poet, physician, and philosopher Jedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi offered a beautiful expression of this image in his poem, Bechinat Olam, "An Investigation of the World"1:
The Torah and humanity combined comprise the lamp of God on earth. The Torah is the flame issuing forth from the spark of God in the heavens. Humanity, made up of both body and soul, is the torch that draws flame from it. The body is the woven wick and the soul is the purified olive oil. Through the intertwining and fusion of torch and flame, the whole house becomes filled with light.
As the ner tamid enabled Moses to see and celebrate his brother, it reminds us that each of us may be the torch. We may pass our flame, one to the next, through acts of kindness and generosity, and in so doing, light up the world. With such light, we may come to see the face of God on earth, and, perhaps even more miraculous, come to see the face of our neighbor as our brother.
- Jedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi, trans. by Tobias Goodman, An Investigation of the World, reprinted by Elefant, 1951
Rabbi Ben Spratt is associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, New York.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 618– Revised Edition, pp. 561–576;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 473–494