ואתחנן אל ה' בעת ההיא לאמר…אעברה נא ואראה את הארץ הטובה אשר בעבר הירדן…ויאמר ה' אלי…אל תוסף עוד דבר אלי בדבר הזה, “I pleaded before Hashem at that time, saying… ‘Let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan’…and Hashem said ‘Speak no more to Me of this matter’” (3:23-26).
The Midrash relates a long dialogue between Moshe and Hashem, with Moshe invoking various arguments to revoke the Divine decree that he may not enter the Promised Land. Hashem told Moshe that each generation has its leader, and his period of leadership is preordained. The predestined time had arrived for Yehoshua to assume the leadership, and there was no way that this could be delayed even for a single moment. To this, Moshe responded, “Well, then, let Yehoshua be the leader, and I will be his disciple,” and Hashem agreed to this.
Yehoshua then entered the Sanctuary, and Moshe remained outside and observed the Divine cloud descending upon the Sanctuary as it had so often done when Hashem had spoken with Moshe. When the cloud lifted and Yehoshua emerged, Moshe asked him, “What did Hashem say to you?” Yehoshua responded, “All those years when Hashem spoke privately to you, did I ever ask you what He said to you?” Whereupon Moshe exclaimed, “I will die a hundred deaths rather than experience one moment of envy!” and surrendered his soul to Hashem.
Of all the negative traits that can afflict the human being, envy is perhaps among the most abhorrent. King Solomon refers to envy as something that “rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Although the Talmud finds redeeming value in envy when envy of another’s knowledge stimulates one to learn (Bava Batra 21a), Rabbeinu Yonah feels that this is a rather undesirable motive for acquiring wisdom and that it would be far preferable for one to desire wisdom for its own sake rather than out of envy.
Moshe was ready to make whatever sacrifices Hashem would request of him in order that he be granted his single wish to set foot on the holy earth of Israel, yet the awareness that he could continue to live only under circumstances that would arouse envy within him was enough to cause him to forgo the most fervent wish of his life.
The ethical work Orchot Tzaddikim states that the envious person, one who desires that which others have, is essentially in disagreement with how Hashem has distributed His bounty among people. The envy that Moshe experienced when he witnessed Yehoshua in communion with Hashem made Moshe realize that he could harbor a feeling that differed with the Divine will, and Moshe felt that a life wherein one’s will deviated from the will of Hashem was not worth living, regardless of what other rewards might be reaped.
The ideal goal in life is described in Pirkei Avot (2:4): “Make His will your will.” A true awareness that one was created for the specific purpose of doing the will of Hashem would make a person dedicate his entire life to fulfilling that purpose. Although we may not be able to reach the degree of perfection achieved by Moshe, we must nevertheless strive for this goal.
Envy is both futile and deplorable. Envy will not result in one’s acquiring the coveted object, and accomplishes nothing except tormenting a person. Moshe welcomed death rather than the harboring of such an abhorrent trait. Even if one does not have this level of spirituality, one’s desire to live may actually be diminished by the anguish of envy. In order to achieve even a modicum of happiness, one must rid oneself of envy.