December 9, 2021 |

Envy, Lust, Vainglory

"Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar said: envy, lust and vain-glory take a person out of this world"
Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 4:21

The first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis read like a primer on how to tick off God. It is a litany of human disobedience and divine attempts to discipline. Since, in His (or Her) mysterious wisdom, God created human beings with free will, God doesn't really have anyone else to blame. If he had wanted an army of mindless automatons (we call them "angels"), He (or She) would have had to create a different kind of world. But it would have been nice if God had had better-behaved children who made more responsible choices.

From our back-seat driver perspective, we are horrified to see Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, which would have been a nice place for us all to live. God gives them a lush and verdant garden in which to frolic and they have only one real responsibility (to take care of the garden, see Gen 2:15[1]) and one very specific no-no: not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge Between Good and Evil. But the Tree is beautiful and it has special and unique properties. The Serpent is persuasive and Chava (Eve) was not paying such close attention to the rules. As her hand stretches out to grasp the fruit, everyone in synagogue is shouting "Don't do it!" But she does. Then, to her discredit, she gives her husband the fruit to eat as well. We all make mistakes, but leading others to sin is an additional and terrible crime. This is the first instance in the Torah of the cardinal sin of lust[2]. In fact, when the Torah describes how Chava feels about the fruit, it describes it as a "ta'ava", or lust-inducing to the eyes. The Torah does not record whether or not the fruit actually TASTED good or just looked good. I have always imagined that it tasted awful and that Chava knew her mistake the moment she bit in.

Since the sin of spiting God is always punished with exile, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. When their sons, Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel), offer sacrifices to God, God embraces Hevel and his animal offering and spurns the grain of Cain. In deep jealousy and against the counsel of God, Kayin kills his brother in the field (the first murder) and is banished again to wander the Earth, marked with shame. The second generation evinces the second cardinal sin: kin'ah, or envy.

Not much happens for the next nine generations, until we reach the Deluge. In Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), our tradition teaches that each generation made God angrier and angrier and was less and less worthy, until God finally decided to destroy the world. It is not clear if He was waiting for the tipping point of evil or for one truly righteous man (Noach) to become the new Adam. The Generation of the Flood inherits the sins of their forebears: lust ("for all flesh perverted its way across the land") and envy ("for the Earth was filled with robbery.")

Generations later, things have still not improved. Most of the descendants of Noach have not shed their pernicious habits and God is growing impatient again. In a final act of vain-glory, Nimrod the barbarian consolidates the city-states of the plains of Shin'ar and builds an urban center with a central tower (The Tower of Babel) designed to reach up into the Heavens. In a unified and totalitarian state, he exerts a "lust for fame", a meaningless patriotism defined by the "building of towers of imaginary glory." (quotes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

The residents of Babel set out their agenda as follows:
"Come let us build for ourselves a city and a tower, with its top in the heavens, and let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the earth." (Gen. 11:4)
A "name" means a reputation, a legacy, an enduring record of a civilization. "Lest we be scattered" may mean either 'lest we be destroyed and exiled'[3] or 'lest we be forgotten'. There is no record within Babel that its residents were corrupted by lust or envy. Their affliction is different. They are arrogant and vainglorious, seekers after honor and prestige. Their punishment is their greatest fear: being scattered over the face of the Earth and becoming remembered only in infamy, as the failed and foolish babblers whose comedic confusion is a source of laughter. In a cacophony of languages, they are unable to communicate and their city and tower fail of their own accord.

Hence, the theological history of mankind until Abraham our forefather. Every generation brings a greater distance between God and humanity, an ever-expanding universe of distance between us and God. Lust, envy, and honor take us out of the world. But it becomes Avraham's mission - and the mission of the Jewish people - to bring us back into the world, to keep the "way of Hashem" (Gen 18:19), to reverse the curse.

Counterpoint to envy: Abraham's tent is open to all sides, welcoming in the stranger. Avraham runs to welcome guests and shares with them selflessly. Counterpoint to lust: Avraham stays with the love of his youth - Sara our foremother -- through many childless years, loyal and committed. He receives the covenant of circumcision, the sanctification of the physical, the appetitive, the sexual. Counterpoint to honor/vainglory: when Malkizedek, king of Jerusalem, blesses Avram (Gen 14:19), Avram takes no credit for himself but says: "I lift up my hand to Hashem, God most high, creator of Heaven and Earth." (Gen 14:22) The one who runs from honor is the one who acquires it.

In Jewish tradition, non-Jews are called b'nai adam (children of Adam, or human beings), Enosh (Adam's grandson, used to mean humanity) or b'nai noach (children of Noach), but Jews are called either b'nei yisrael (children of Jacob/Israel) or zera avraham, seed of Abraham. Anyone who is Jewish - even a convert - is among the seed of Abraham if they share the mission of bringing us back into the world and closer to God. May we achieve the traits of selflessness, self-restraint and humility, or a good eye (against lust), a good will (against envy) and a love of all people (against arrogance.)[4]


[1] This actually has 2 parts: "to tend" and "to protect", but the telos is the same. Adam is also given the responsibility of classifying the animals and, perhaps, to be fruitful and multiply. According to Maimonides, Adam was also enjoined to believe in God and not to practice idolatry/polytheism.
[2] Interestingly, the first lust is not sexual. However, Rabbinic tradition suggests an earlier act of lust, the serpent's carnal desire for Eve. He hoped by seducing her to eat the fruit to seduce her away from Adam as well.
[3] This is one hint of rebelliousness against God, for they hope to avoid the punishment of exile.
[4] See Pirkei Avot 2:16, where the traits of a bad eye, a bad will and hatred of other human beings are also identified as things that take one out of the world. Many commentators associate these three with the three we have mentioned.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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