The story is told of an elderly Jewish woman who entered the office of her ophthalmologist and reported frantically that her neighbor had given her a canary, and ever since there was no end to the problems she was having with her eyesight. The doctor was baffled. What connection could there possibly be between her neighbor’s canary and the maladies from which his patient was now suffering? Finally, the mystery was unraveled. The woman’s neighbor, she believed, had given her an ayin hara. The Yiddish expression kein ayin hara (may you be spared from the evil eye) had metamorphosed with her (as in the lingo of many Americans at the time) into “canary.”
The belief in the power of the evil eye and the desire to ward off its deleterious spell are rooted firmly in Jewish historical consciousness. Indeed, the Talmud is replete with numerous references to the notion of ayin hara and takes its existence for granted. Interestingly, the Talmud also records a tradition that Yosef and his progeny possess a natural immunity to the effects of the evil eye. Two sources in Parshas Vayechi are cited in support. The first is a phrase contained in the blessing imparted by Yaakov to Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe: “And may they proliferate like fish within the land” (Bereishis 48:16). Yaakov likens Yosef’s children to fish whose extraordinary rate of procreation is attributed to their being hidden from public display and who are therefore free from the effects of the evil eye. The second is the blessing given to Yosef later in the parsha: “A fruitful son is Yosef, a fruitful son to the eye (alei ayin)” (49:22). The phrase “alei ayin” (to the eye) is taken as “olei ayin, ascending – or transcending – the [spell of] the evil eye.”
What was it about Yosef that earned him this special quality of being immune to ayin hara? Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that the risk of ayin hara is exacerbated when one arouses envy in others; hence, it follows that the threat is mitigated by living one’s life in a selfless, altruistic manner. One who does so is obviously less likely to stand out and to trigger the jealousy of others, and consequently, is less prone to ayin hara. If there is a Biblical figure whose very being personifies the quality of altruism, it is Yosef. As a lad, Yosef’s youthful excesses overshadowed his noble character and aroused his brother’s enmity. However, as he matured in years, self-absorption yielded to selfless concern for others to an extraordinary degree. To cite four illustrations:
1. When Yosef is first summoned by Pharaoh, he is hailed as a wizard in the art of interpreting dreams. Yet, Yosef’s humble, self-effacing response is: “It is beyond me; G-d will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Bereishis 41:16). Yosef eschews recognition by emphatically stating that he lacked expertise in dream interpretation.
2. In Parshas Vayigash, the Torah describes Yosef’s handling of the Egyptian treasury: “And Yosef brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace” (47:14). The Ramban explains that the Torah emphasizes Yosef’s scrupulous execution of his duties in bringing all the monies into Pharaoh’s palace without thought of amassing personal wealth.
3. If we consider the manner in which Yosef related to his brothers, we are struck by the absence of any vindictiveness. Considering how the brothers had treated him, it would have been natural for Yosef to take it personally and relish the opportunity to “get even.” But Yosef evidently did not bear a grudge, as he repeatedly emphasized to the brothers after revealing his identity. Even his initial harsh display – accusing his brothers of spying – was only a means to inspire repentance and was not prompted by malice. This thought is summed up in a midrashic comment cited by Rashi on the verse “And Yosef recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him” (42:8). The Midrash interprets this verse as symbolically suggesting a contrast between Yosef’s compassionate treatment of his brothers – “And Yosef recognized his brothers” – and their callous conduct toward him – “but they did not recognize him.”