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Thy Neighbor’s Ass – 1/25/2015

Just inside the door to my study – back there at the rear of the sanctuary – there hangs on the wall a decorative plate. It was a gift from my little brother, who has lived for three years now in East Jerusalem. The plate is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and the words are the entire text of the 113th surah, or chapter, of the Qur’an. This all fits onto one plate because the chapters of the Qur’an get shorter and shorter the deeper into the scripture you go, so that this one, the second-to-last, is only six lines long. The text of this chapter is a common decoration in Muslim homes, and many Muslims recite its words as part of their preparations for sleep each night. It is a prayer for help and protection. Any translation of the original Arabic would be imperfect, but I’ll tell you the poetic rendering that I repeat to myself every time I stare at that plate:

I take refuge in the breaking forth of dawn

Against all the evils of creation

And the evil that dwells in the onrushing night

And the evil of hateful thoughts and imprecations

And the evil of envy

Whether it be in another’s heart or in my own

So you can hear, then, that it is a prayer against evil, and in particular against three sorts. All the dangers and threats that the night may have to offer. All the harms of cruel thoughts and evil wishes. The literal Arabic translation for that verse is, “those who blow on knots,” which is a reference to an ancient pagan practice – this is meant as a shield against curses or witchcraft, to use a locally resonant term. And finally, the evil of envy – with no distinction made between protection from someone else’s envy, and your own.

As I said, I repeat this formula to myself every time I stare at that plate that my brother gave me. When I hung it in my office, I put it in a place where I would see it immediately any time I looked up from my desk – something I do dozens, maybe as much as a hundred times in a day. That prayer for protection from envy is something that I need to be reminded of at least that often – and if I’m being honest, I could use the reminder a good bit more often than that.

About fifteen years ago I was talking with someone who was then a new friend, about what the most challenging moral demand of the biblical tradition was. My answer was an obvious one, but pretty easy to defend: the hardest thing is to respond to hate with love. His answer was a little less common, and challenging enough that a decade and a half later I am still thinking about it: The hardest thing to do, he said, is not to covet. He was referring, of course, to the close of the Ten Commandments – what is either commandment ten or commandments nine and ten, depending on whether one follows the Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic numberings. The Ten Commandments actually appear twice in the bible in slightly different formulations. Here’s that segment from their first edition, in the book of Exodus, according to the beloved and infamous King James translation:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”[i]

It’s a simple enough idea that – once adjusted by the more recent moral insight that people ought not to belong to other people in the way that houses can – seems hard to argue with. Yet, so much of our world is built around the covetous impulse – the feeling of desire for what we do not have, of envy towards others for anything and everything they may possess. A commercial for fabric softener, or beer, or a new model of automobile shows us someone else enjoying fluffy clothes, an evening out, an exciting lifestyle. The scene is there to make us want what they have, to envy them, to covet whatever product or service it is we are meant to connect their enjoyment to. Such envy might just drive us to go out and buy that product which is, after all, the one and only point of all advertising. But here the coveting doesn’t start or end in an object – and it may never even pass through one.

We are conditioned constantly to desire experiences we don’t have, habits we could never afford, bodies that are wildly unrealistic for anyone without the aid of copious free time, a team of personal trainers, and photoshop. The vast array of images and sounds that make up our shared culture are mostly meant to advertise something, and even as this force manipulates us, it’s viewers, it is not really any more kind to the celebrities and media personalities that act out this jealous-making pageant. MTV, in just one example, has quite a long-running program devoted to showcasing the opulent homes of musicians and other celebrities. They play up the luxury and expense of these estates, even though they are often rented, with cars and other flashy attractions on loan to make the episode’s subject appear more unapproachably well-off. Whole careers are built, by this machine, to make us covet our neighbor’s house, or our neighbor’s ass. See for example: Kim Kardashian. This is even something we do entirely to ourselves and each other, with no need for the direct action of any mighty corporation or advertising agency. Facebook, all by itself – not the ads, not the sponsored content, but the pictures and descriptions of friends and family living their lives – has now been shown to leave one in three users substantially less satisfied with their own lives at the end of a given browsing session.[ii]

The ability to assess who has something we do not, and to make a bid against that gap is a skill most of us begin practicing at a very young age. In one scene from his quasi-auto-biographical television show, comedian Louis CK gives the last piece of mango to one of his young daughters, and then has to contend the other’s complaints. “It’s not fair,” she insists, again and again, until her father declares sternly, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” This does nothing to placate her – so he gives up and lets her have a piece of candy as a consolation – provided she takes another to give to her sister. The ways in which envy has shaped human interaction throughout the history of our species are countless. It is implied in the text, and sometimes argued by biblical interpreters, that Cain slew his brother Abel because he was jealous that his brother’s sacrificial offering was found pleasing to God where his was not. Far more recently, it was reported two years ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin had risked an international incident in order to make off with Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring. He saw something. He wanted it. He took it. That ethos has founded whole nations – and snuffed out and diminished uncountable lives.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not unique in their collective stance against covetousness and envy. That is a theme throughout much of human religion – one might say even that it is an essential purpose behind all faith to mitigate our most selfish impulses. In the Buddhist tradition, jealousy is seen as a terrible impediment to spiritual growth. One Buddhist story tells of a monk who lived alone in a small shrine that was supported by a wealthy patron. Because of the regular donations he received, the monk never had to worry about where his next meal would come from, and he could devote himself entirely to study and meditation. Then, one day, a wandering sage passed through town. He happened to meet the wealthy man who supported the shrine, and the rich man was impressed by this visitor’s wisdom and holiness. He suggested that the wanderer stay for a time at the shrine. The resident monk welcomed the traveler outwardly, but inside he became fearful and angry. He wished the rich man’s attention and respect for himself, and did not want to share it. Even more so, he was afraid of losing his meal-ticket.

The next day, when it was time for both monks to go out begging together, the envious one rang the gong to sound the hour and knocked on the guest’s door – but only a with a single fingernail each time, so that no sound could be heard. Then he went out begging alone while the wandering monk continued to sleep. The jealous monk went to see the rich man on his route and ate another fine meal in his house. He claimed ignorance of where the visiting monk might be, but implied that perhaps he was too busy sleeping to see to his spiritual obligations. The benefactor sent the deceitful monk back to the shrine with a generous meal of food for his guest, but when the wanderer woke up he realized that he must have been unwelcome, and left the shrine and the town behind. The original monk was left alone again as he had desired, but his mind was not at peace. The rest of his days were spent worrying over whether that sage would return again, or another rival might appear, and so he could never enjoy the comfort of even one more meal.

One of the Buddhist tradition’s key antidotes to the corrosive effects of envy is mudita – taking joy in the happiness and accomplishments of others. Mudita – usually translated as sympathetic joy – is one of the four immeasurables – virtues which, in the Buddhist understanding, one can never have too much of. To be happy for the happiness of others, to celebrate their accomplishments, and to rejoice in their good fortune: this is the way out of envy. This is the means to overcome covetousness.

I would expect that, for most of us, such sympathetic joy is not foreign, but it also isn’t something that comes easily on demand. One of the aspects of life where it usually feels most natural is in the relationship between close friends and family members, and perhaps most strongly between parents and their children. It’s a common thing for those of us who are parents to express how proud we are of our children. Sometime ago, however, I had a conversation with one of you that made me do some rethinking of whether I ought to say as much, or at least how I ought to say it. Jack Quigley is a long-time member of our congregation, and I’ve shared a number of fascinating and illuminating conversations with him in my comparatively shorter time here. Jack, I thank you for granting me your permission to talk a bit about one such conversation this morning. Jack mentioned to me early this fall that when his children were younger he resisted saying that he was proud of them. This wasn’t because he didn’t rejoice in their accomplishments – quite the contrary. Raising two talented children there was a lot to rejoice in. But somehow to declare that he was proud felt presumptuous, as though he was laying claim to something he did not have a right to. Pride is something one ought to have in oneself – that emotion belonged to his children to claim and to feel. Jack invoked a much beloved stanza from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,”

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

I agree with you, Jack, that pride is a feeling that we need, first and foremost, to feel for ourselves. And I would not quibble with your decision not to use the term in reference to other people – there are a great bevy of alternatives to express our appreciation for and celebration of our children, our partners, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors, or anyone else. But I also think there may be a way to salvage feeling pride for others, for those of us who might want to hold onto it. Saying that you’re proud of someone can mean that you know them well enough to appreciate their gifts and accomplishments and to recognize that they’re worth feeling good about. Even if the other person doesn’t always feel pride in themselves, you feel it for them. This is mudita, this is sympathetic joy. What we call it matters, in as much as words always matter, but the feeling is what is most important.

Which is why, when I find the green glow of envy creeping in at the edges of my vision, when I note some good luck or accomplishment for a tangential friend or colleague – often on Facebook – and lift my head up from my computer screen for an instant, I take refuge in the breaking forth of dawn. I pray to myself again those words that are inscribed on my office wall. I remind myself that the small and petty instinct of covetousness is nothing before the generous and sympathetic celebration of the universe. Each morning, the innumerable trials and triumphs of the world receive such wondrous fanfare as no human hand could wrought. There is a force that is greater in the human heart than the urge to possess whatever our neighbors might have. And this is the finding of pleasure in another’s pleasure. The finding of hope in another’s hope. The finding of gratitude in another’s good fortune. So this week, friends, I have a bit of homework for us to undertake: practice celebrating the gifts and good fortune of the other people in your lives.


[i] Exodus 20:17



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