Last week the lawmakers in the United Kingdom banned the use of botox-style injections and lip fillers for anyone under the age of 18. Government estimates showed that there were over 41,000 non-surgical cosmetic procedures performed on under 18 year olds last year. The pursuit of beauty has accelerated world-wide under the influence of social media. Teenage girls and boys seek to emulate the “look” of celebrity or influencer teenagers they constantly see on Instagram or TikTok. Young people by the thousands worldwide seek to change lips, cheeks, jaws, chins, noses, foreheads, as well as other body parts leaving many emotionally and physically scarred by botched procedures performed by un-trained and/ or poorly trained and unlicensed “beauty technicians.”
This often obsessive wish to change one’s appearance has its roots in self-insecurities, poor self-esteem, envy and the illusion to get the acceptance, love and attention missing in their lives.. Many Teens want to have what they see and truly believe others have. Of course, insecurities, envy and jealousy are not emotions that only teenagers experience. “Facebook envy” is a term that has been used to describe “the painful feeling one gets when people feel that other people’s lives on Facebook are more interesting, joyful, and worthwhile than theirs.” In a study of Facebook users, one in three reported feeling worse after going to the website and more disappointed in their own lives.
Since the beginning of history human beings have known that envy and jealousy are powerful emotions that can lead to self-destructive behaviors These emotions can also lead not only to self-harm but to mistreatment of and violence toward others. The first murder in human history of Abel by his brother Cain was brought about by envy. Both brothers made offerings to G-d. Abel’s offering was accepted by G-d, but Cain’s offering was rejected. Envious of the favor shown to his brother by G-d, Cain rose up and killed Abel.
We find another such example in this week’s Torah portion. Here we find Sarah and Abraham childless at an advanced age. Sarah has a maidservant named Hagar. She suggests that Abraham might have a child with her, who Sarah and Abraham could then adopt and raise as their own. Abraham agrees to the arrangement, but as soon as Hagar conceives, Sarah regrets her decision. Sarah perceives a shift in Hagar’s relationship with her. Perhaps empowered by the fact that she is carrying Abraham’s child, Sarah feels a lack of respect from Hagar. Feeling diminished and jealous of Hagar’s ability to have a child when she could not, Sarah mistreats Hagar. One of the characteristics of envy is not only wishing we can have what others have, but also desiring that what we do not have others do not have either. Thus, Jewish legend holds that Sarah cast an evil eye on Hagar and Hagar miscarried!
You may think that imputing such emotions as jealousy and envy to such a saintly figure as “Sarah Imanu”, Sarah, our mother, would be an act of impudence and impiety. But the Torah does not hide the moral blemishes of its heroes. The founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism, the 19th century Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men and women. When we read their stories, we can identify with them precisely because they are not perfect. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our appreciation, even reverence of them. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they were born that way and therefore were divine beings beyond our capacity to emulate. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of their good fortune or genetics, not a product of their personal growth and certainly no model we could ever hope to aspire to.
Thus, we ought not feel shame or embarrassment when we find ourselves envious or jealous of the good fortune of others. We should remember that even an exalted and revered figure as Sarah imenu could not only experience this emotion but temporarily allow it to govern her behavior. Like Sarah, we need to be aware that jealousy and envy could lead us to make poor decisions that hurt ourselves or others.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z’l’ writes, “No religion has held a higher view of humanity than the Book that tells us we are each in the image and likeness of God. Yet none has been more honest about the failings of even the greatest. God does not ask us to be perfect. He asks us, instead, to take risks in pursuit of the right and the good, and to acknowledge the mistakes we will inevitably make.”