Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q. I'm coming to realize that some of the problems in my life are related to feeling jealous. I don't have a problem with the tangible things others have, but rather the intangible; someone is luckier than I am, someone has a better relationship, someone has life so much easier because they received help I never got.
Instead of being happy for others, nagging comparisons pop into my head. I'm also the one always rooting for the underdog, not wanting someone who already has it good to get more. Why do I think like this, and how can I rid myself of these awful emotions? Second, what are your thoughts on grudges? -- Anonymous, Wisconsin, via email
A. The Ten Commandments end with, "Thou shalt not covet . . ." (the 10th Commandment in certain countings and the 9th and 10th Commandments in other countings). This is a strange commandment because it seems to proscribe a state of mind rather than a specific action like stealing, murder or adultery. It's difficult to understand and to obey because although we can be aware of acting in a certain sinful manner, we can't really know if our thoughts are pure.
It surely is not wrong to want what others have, particularly if what they have is a serene, compassionate, charitable and loving life. Gandhi wrote, "To a poor man, God is bread." If you don't have food, it's not wrong or sinful to want the food you see on other people's tables. Ambition is also not sinful coveting, even if your ambition stems from seeing others enjoying what you want for yourself.
The spiritual trap of coveting occurs when your desire for what you see others possess embitters your own soul. This prevents you from being grateful for what you already have and may divert your energies from working hard to do better for yourself and your family. What others have has not been taken from you.
My suggestion is for you to always bless a piece of bread before you eat a meal. By blessing simple food, you remind yourself that God has already given you the basic needs of life. These needs are not lavish. They're elemental, and most importantly, they are gifts from God. My tradition teaches, "Who is rich? One who is happy with his or her portion." Looking inward may help you avoid jealousy.
As to your question about people who hold grudges, I'd also encourage you to look away from these folks and into your own heart. Some people are so broken and angry that they can't forgive others for the sins they eagerly desire others to forgive in them. Some soften with time. You should pray for them and pray that their brokenness will heal.
In the meantime, understand that what's going on is about them, not you. As with coveting, you need to recover a sense of your own spiritual center and avoid people whose negative energy keeps you down rather than lifting you up. Jesus has wonderful things to say about forgiveness.
In Colossians 3:13, we read: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." My favorite teaching is from Matthew 18:21-22: "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but 70 times seven."
Q. Isn't the notion of a "deathbed confession" a fallacy? Isn't it just fear rather than true repentance and remorse that drives the act? If a person lives a profligate life and plans to express their sorrow only at the end, how can that be genuine?
-- J., Long Island, via email
A. I've been present (with my friend Father Tom Hartman) for deathbed confessions of Christians, as well as Jewish people. In those sad but uplifting moments, I was completely convinced that the person was sincere and trying, with his or her last breath, to make things right with God and let go of life in a holy and dignified manner.
To assume that these moments are a mere last-minute connivance to wheedle one's way into God's good graces is a cruel distortion of a moment of sincere repentance.