Avoiding Social Media Envy

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by R. Gil Student

I. Social Media Discontent

Social media is what we make of it. The different social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram, etc. — allow us to share thoughts and pictures with others and engage in conversation with them. What we share, what we discuss, is up to us. For some reason, a lot of social media usage has turned into sharing pictures of what we have and what we do. People take pictures of their homes or possessions, or the places they visit and the people with whom they visit, usually posing and staging things to appear in the best possible way, or even better than they actually are.

It is hard to see other people’s seemingly blessed lives and not feel envious. Our own lives pale in comparison because of an obvious bias — we see our lives at the good times and at the bad times while on social media we see other people’s lives only at the good times. The envy and resulting sadness, discontent with our own lot in life, is almost at pandemic levels.

There are a few tools we can utilize to avoid this pitfall of social media. There is much to say on this subject and I hope to return to it again from different angles. For now, I would like to discuss one powerful tool that emerges from a Medieval dream and a surprising Modern interpretation related to Parashas Eikev.

II. The Missing Mitzvah

Rav Moshe of Coucy (13th cen., France) traveled throughout Europe preaching teshuvah and mitzvos. In order to facilitate his teaching, he compiled a list of the 613 commandments and, on request of his listeners, published the list together with Talmudic sources and some practical details. This book, which is called Sefer Mitzvos Gadol or Semag, became an important halakhic work for the generations. After Rav Moshe of Coucy finished a draft of the book, he had a dream in which he was told that he forgot a mitzvah. On awakening, Rav Moshe searched through the Torah and realized that there is a mitzvah in Parashas Eikev that he needs to include and it appears as prohibition 64 in Semag.

Rav Yehudah Rosannes (18th cen., Turkey), the author of Mishneh Le-Melekh, notes in his Derekh Mitzvosekha that Semag diverges from Rambam’s list of mitzvos regarding three positive commandments and 13 prohibitions. It isn’t clear which of the 13 Semag removed because of the dream but we know what he added. The Torah warns, “Ve-ram levavekha ve-shachakhta es Hashem Elokekha, And your heart will become haughty and you will forget God, your Lord” (Deut. 8:14). This follows an earlier verse that begins, “Hishamer lekha, Take care, lest…” (v.11), which implies a prohibition. Therefore, concludes the Semag based on a Gemara in Sotah (5a), it is biblically prohibited to be arrogant (Semag, introduction to prohibitions and prohibition 64). Put differently, we are obligated to be humble. This is easier said than done.

The Mishnah (Sotah 49a) says that when R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi died, humility ceased. Surprisingly, Rav Yosef (ibid., 49b) said not to teach this because he was still there. There still exists humility after R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi’s passing because of Rav Yosef. It seems that Rav Yosef was announcing to the world that he was humble, something we don’t know expect to hear from someone who truly is humble. There is an important lesson here in the nature of humility but Rav Ya’akov Lorberbaum of Lissa (19th cen., Poland; Nachalas Ya’akov, Deut. 8:14) offers a different, original interpretation of this passage.

III. The Fragility of Life

Rav Ya’akov of Lissa says that, of course there were other humble people, including many great rabbis, after R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi died. It is absurd to think that he was the only humble person in the world. Rather, R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi’s life taught an important lesson about humility that people thought was lost with his death. R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi was a great Torah scholar and a wealthy man. He was politically powerful and widely respected and feared. As the Gemara in Gittin (59a) says, from the time of Moshe until R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi, we do not find any other individual with such achievements in Torah and material greatness. And yet, R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi suffered great physical pains. The Gemara in Bava Metzi’a (85a) says that when he went to the outhouse, he would scream so loudly from the pain that sailors could hear him out at sea.

Anyone who saw R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi’s greatness on the one hand and immense pain on the other saw compelling proof that our own achievements in this world are meaningless. We can earn a lot of money, reach the heights of our chosen fields, but we can’t control our own fates. The Mishnah says that when R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi died, humility ceased, not because he was such a humble man — even though he was. His life was a lesson to everyone about humility. When he died, that lesson was lost. People could no longer look at him and realize that our this-worldly achievements are no reason for arrogance.

Rav Yosef objected that his life also teaches the same lesson. Who was Rav Yosef? Rav Yosef was also wealthy, although perhaps not as wealthy as R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi. Rav Yosef’s specialty was his great breadth of knowledge. He was called a Sinai, someone with all the traditions and teachings at his fingertips (Berakhos 64a) despite being blind (Kiddushin 31a). Eventually, Rav Yosef rose to the position of rosh yeshiva, the highest religious position in Babylonia, but became sick and lost his memory (Nedarim 41a). Tragically, the blind rabbi who knew everything from memory lost his memory and all his learning. Everything he had, his entire claim to fame, the Torah greatness he had achieved through immense work, was lost.

When people saw Rav Yosef, they recognized how fragile our lives are. How our achievements, of which we take such pride, are all fleeting. Even the Torah we learn is not really ours because we can lose it in an instant. To all who saw him, Rav Yosef was a lesson about humility. As long as Rav Yosef was alive, people could look to him and learn humility, just as previously people could learn the same lesson from R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi.

IV. Humility and Envy

None of this means that we should not work hard and achieve, that we should not earn money or take public office. It certainly does not mean that we should not learn Torah or strive for greatness. Rather, it means that we have to recognize that our achievements are fleeting. Our social statuses can change; our economic statuses can change also. As the old saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Humility comes from the recognition that in the long term, we cannot control our lives or our fates. All we can control is our attitudes.

When we look at the social media posts of others, we can rejoice at the blessings that they seem to have. If we keep in mind the possibility that those blessings are temporary, that someone’s fortune today could turn into misfortune tomorrow, we might not become jealous. We certainly do not wish harm on others. However, we also have to recognize that everything we have or anyone else has can disappear in a moment. One’s possessions, one’s knowledge, one’s accomplishments, one’s health — they are all fleeting. The realities of life, the uncertainties of life, the overwhelming forces that are beyond our control can humble us in an instant. We can recognize this by looking at the misfortunes of others — whether historical figures such as R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi and Rav Yosef or contemporaries of whom there is no shortage. From their stories, we can realize that we, too, must be humble and so must our social media friends. Nothing lasts forever so what is there really to envy?

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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