A Jewish Lesson on Basketball and Envy

On a long-distance drive with my son, I was listening to the podcast, Hidden Brain. What piqued my interest in the podcast was that they mentioned the University of Kentucky’s rivalry with Duke University. A couple of nights earlier, my son and I had attended a University of Kentucky basketball game which I described as “Heaven on earth,” given that he and I are both rabid UK fans. We love watching our players excel and we love seeing them trounce the opposing team. The podcast mentioned a study that measured UK fans’ pleasure upon learning of an injury of a Duke basketball player. The more intense the student’s love of UK basketball, the more likely they were to feel satisfaction from the injury of the Duke player. I admit I am pleased when Duke loses in basketball. However, I do not feel satisfaction when a player is injured – on any team.

I’ve always taught my children that we may celebrate our wins, but we should not celebrate someone else’s suffering. Under no circumstances do we ever cheer when a player is injured.

The podcast was about envy. They talked about two different kinds of envy: benign and malicious. Benign envy is when we see a quality or success achieved by another person and it inspires us to be successful and achieve our own goals. Malicious envy is when we enjoy the suffering of someone whom we envy, also known as schadenfreude. The science suggests that if we begin to experience schadenfreude often enough, it could lead to our taking actions to cause another person’s suffering. As I reflected on this, I was immensely grateful for the wisdom of our ancestors.

The commandment not to covet appears twice in our Torah. It is unique amongst the Ten Commandments in that it is the only one that mandates how we should feel, rather than how we should act. Sforno, a well-known commentator from the 16th century, explained it succinctly, “Once you begin to covet something belonging to someone else it is only a short step to committing robbery.” Our feelings can, therefore, influence our actions. Just like the basketball study, this commandment cautions us against coveting as it can lead us to feel pleasure when the object of our envy experiences a loss or suffers in some way. It may not be long before we take it upon ourselves to be the instrument of that person’s loss or harm.

One of my favorite Midrashim (rabbinic stories), elucidates this further. When Moses leads the Israelites safely through the Sea of Reeds and the waters close upon Pharaoh’s army, God chastises the Israelites for celebrating the Egyptians’ deaths. “My children are drowning,” God cries! We celebrate the Israelites success in achieving newfound freedom. We celebrate our freedoms, today, but we should not celebrate at the expense of others for they, too, are God’s children.

This March Madness you may hear me and my son cheering on the Cats, but we will be sure to check our emotions for any feelings of schadenfreude. May the virtues we recognize in others inspire us to become better people and may we avoid the impulse to cause anyone else despair.

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