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Thursday, 3 December 2015

Prosperity is not a zero-sum game

Daf Yomi Sotah 38


Parking at work is always such a hassle.  The problem is there are three hundred employees but only two hundred parking spots.  ‘It’s no big deal,’ says your boss, ‘come early, there are loads of free spaces!’  Wonderful advice, but it doesn’t change the fact that eventually the spots will fill up and there won’t be enough.  Truth is, it doesn’t really bother you, because you’ve always been an early bird.  And so every day you get a spot, no problem.

One day, the company announces that it will be adding another hundred spots directly adjacent to the building.  Those spots will be reserved for the finance department.  Wonderful news, now there will be enough space for everyone!  Only problem is you’re in HR and so you are still in the old parking lot with the five minute walk to your office.  Your blood boils every day as you get near the building and walk past the new spots.

But why are you upset?  Your parking space hasn’t changed.  Until now, you’ve been very content each day as you’ve driven into the parking lot and found a spot no problem.  Why suddenly the change of heart?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: We only give the blessing cup to lead the bentching (Grace After Meals) to one who has a good eye. For Proverbs states, “The good eye, he shall be blessed, for he has given of his bread to the poor.”  Do not read the word ‘he shall be blessed;’ rather, ‘he shall bless.’
Rashi explains: Having a good eye means spurning opulence and providing material kindness. 

What is the connection between having a good eye and leading bentching?   When one recites the bentching, he is thanking Heaven for providing sustenance.  That action of gratitude, in turn, causes further blessing to descend.  And so, in effect, the one who is leading, is requesting material sustenance for all the participants.

One who is miserly and jealous of others’ material prosperity will not truly want them to be blessed.  And so if he were to recite the bentching, he would not mean what he says.   It is only the person who ‘spurns opulence’ and shares his worldly possessions with others by ‘providing material kindness’ who may be trusted with leading the bentching and truly meaning what he says when he is requesting Heaven’s bounty. 

The problem with most people is that material prosperity is a zero-sum game.  Your gain is my loss.  I may have maintained the same fine level of income all along, but if I sense that you have experienced a significant increase in wealth, I suddenly feel poorer.   When I notice that you have a fancier car, a more lavish vacation, a bigger house, I become dissatisfied with my lot in life, even though my income may be pretty decent, compared to 99% of people in the world.

The person with a good eye is happy when they see their neighbour prosper.  They know that their neighbour’s new car hasn’t made them any poorer.  It’s not about relative prosperity; it’s about absolute prosperity.  And so if you were to add up our combined incomes – mine and my neighbour’s – we are doing better overall than last year.  I might have remained in the same place; but he has earned more.  Therefore, I am happy at the total increase in wealth.  That is the definition of having a good eye.

When they build the new parking lot and are suddenly able to accommodate all the employees, you should be happy.  So what that some people get to park a little closer; it hasn’t affected your parking spot.  You’re in exactly the same place you’ve always been.  For years, you’ve been content to park there; why would you be dissatisfied now?

How do you feel when you hear of others’ success?  Are you truly happy for them?  Or do you start feeling jealous?  Are you prepared to give away your worldly possessions to others who need sustenance or even just a loan?  Or do you have a bad eye; an eye that gets jealous at another person’s prosperity?


Open your eyes to world.  See only the good.  Pursue what’s truly valuable in life.  And never be overprotective of your material possessions.  May you work on developing a good eye so that you may truly enjoy watching others prosper in life!