Not everyone is happy about your success


This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, Genesis: 25:19-28:9.

While much of this week’s parsha, Toldot, is centered on Jacob and Esau, their rivalry is foreshadowed by the rivalry experienced in the land between Isaac and the Philistines.

Isaac’s greatness in “acquiring flocks, herds, and much wealth,” according to the Ramban, became a sore point for his neighbors. In Genesis 26:14, we find the term “vaykanu oto,” meaning “and they envied him,” at least by what they could observe. What was it that they envied? Isaac’s success.

We often find that success brings envy. A young man in high school became a National Merit scholar. He was the first in his school to accomplish this. To celebrate, the administration put his picture in the lobby of the school with an announcement. The young man indicated that it was disturbing to him, as it could bring trouble for him instead of admiration. It would bring resentment. In addition, he felt that it was unfair.

In our world, not everyone is happy about someone else’s success or achievement. Some people are envious and resentful. In our sidra, it is Isaac’s success which engenders the envy of the Philistines. No one among them says, ‘”Isaac, help us, teach us to do what you are doing so we too can experience becoming greater.” Instead, the Philistines take action against Isaac by closing up his wells.

Why didn’t they attack Isaac? According to Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, they had been warned by Abimelech in Gen. 26:11 that “…whoever bothers these people will be put to death.”

Quarreling over water is still going on today. Water is the key for survival in the land where they could not imagine Niagara or Victoria Falls. Water is precious, and it can be spiritually cleansing, as in the mikvah or important moments in the spiritual journey of a people, representing life itself.

One is puzzled by the repeating theme of envy and jealousy in the Torah: Cain’s jealousy of Abel leads to disastrous consequences. Sarah and Hagar represent another variation in this theme in vying for dominance within the family structure and in determining the future. Now we encounter Isaac and the Philistines, with their envy of his success.

Isaac avoids confrontation as his wells are “stopped” one by one. He avoids confrontation —- yet to do this, six times communicates that he has no wish to fight. He accepts the Philistines push for him to leave while awaiting the fulfillment of a promise by God. In Isaac’s persistence, he is finally accepted. Nevertheless, it seems unreasonable for him to resolve the envy of others merely by moving to another location.

We know that by giving in he was pursued until the seventh well, Be’ersheva. A vision and dream of peace cause him to express his gratitude and to establish a covenant of peace. This is a consequence of his willingness to avoid strife. Isaac and Abimelech (Philistines) make a treaty, a covenant of peace. Its message is that Isaac wants peace with his neighbors in the land, sharing it and its resources.

His willingness to acquiesce to the Philistines’ demands is given as a sign of sincerity that he wishes to live in peace. This is a religious resolution. Yet, in our world, being willing to defend the well from the start is his right, and envy is the sin.

For these reasons, this foreshadowing of Jacob and Esau is disturbing. When we search the well of meaning in the Torah, there are endless rewards for finding new wells again and again. Nevertheless, the human inclination to be envious should not be ignored. It should be challenged. If you dig the well, is it yours? If you dig the well, is the water yours? The answer should be “yes.”

Some questions to consider:

Does excelling in school cause anxiety?

Can it cause resentment and envy? Why?

What can be done to change this?

Why did Isaac have to dig wells when Abraham has already done this?

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom Congregation, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here