Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The One Where I Don't Belong at the White House

Parshat VaYehi
7 Tevet, 5774
December 9th, 2013

One of the coolest things to happen to a Jewish professional is to get invited to the White House Hannukah party. That invitation carries with it the recognition that one's work has been seen and heard far beyond one's local sphere of influence, beyond the Jewish community, into the national arena.

Which is why I can say to you, here and now: I wasn't invited to the White House Hannukah party last Wednesday. 

Oh, I went to the party, but as my wonderful boss Esther's plus 1. In fact, I was the stand-in for her 8 year-old granddaughter Sadie. Sadie had decided that the event wasn't to her taste.

Thank you, Sadie. It was magical. I enjoyed every second of it. You might have liked the full-sized, papier-mâché dolls of Bo and Sunny Obama, complete with tails wagging. I did.

So I found myself at an unusual vantage point, enjoying the fruits of recognition that were not mine, in this case. Then I posted the evidence on Facebook.

I think it's worth talking about the kind of envy that can arise in the age of Facebook. For many of us, the currency of our lives is not, well, currency – it is recognition. Especially if we work in any kind of public sphere, our relative remuneration is rarely a matter of money - it is the regard of others.

Thus every invitation begets a pool of non-invitees suffering silently, for they were not recognized. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit just how many times we have been those people, sitting greenly at home.

What I've noticed is that envy does not disappear with recognition, for there is always someone “more” than you - someone richer, more famous, more Facebook friends, more friends, more in love. It doesn't matter how many times a person is seen, that old emotion still stands ready. Fame is not the cure for envy.

The Torah says about Moshe that he was, "the most humble man on the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3) Considering that he was the greatest leader ever to grace the Jewish people, I don't think the Torah means that he was really quiet and unassuming; I think it means that he learned to master his envy. In fact there's a scene in the Torah where, through a kind of mishap, two men receive the spirit of God within the actual Israelite camp, and run through it, prophesying as they go. Joshua tries to get Moses to stop them, presumably worried for his teacher's authority. And Moses responds, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all HaShem's people were prophets, and that HaShem would put God's spirit in them." (Numbers 11:29) 

I can only imagine the kind, wry smile that accompanied those beautiful words.

As the content of our lives is so easily shared, I don't think the difficulties of our envy will go away. Instead, let's learn to find joy in the warmth of real humility, as our teacher Moshe did. The trick, it seems, is to invest as heavily as we are able in happiness for our colleagues and friends who were recognized even as we recount the ways in which we too are filled with the holy fire. The way to overcome envy is to choose happiness, for others and ourselves at the same time. That joy can yank us from darker places, and at the very least remove jealousy’s sting. 


  1. Thank you, Scott. I have many times found myself leftout. I am 72, and the sting remains, tho way mellower.

  2. Great piece. In a city full of power, envy, and greed ( as well as hope, change, promise and hard work), its so easy to be caught up in this kind of envy and recognition. This is an important piece to help keep those darker feelings in check!

  3. Scott...

    My father would say, "Goot Gezuk'd" (well said)...Your wisdom and brilliance know no bounds ... what you teach is humbling and needs to be forever repeated...so continue to climb your path of greatness and lead us to be better menschlichkite...

    Hugs and Love


  4. I'm 70 years old and this lesson has seen me through some difficult times: You only have to look to HaShem for validation and you'll always find it. Kavanah.