Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind put a person out of the world. (Avot 2:11)
Rabbi Yehoshua cautions that three traits will remove a person from the world. While the three terms are somewhat familiar, they require elucidation. We also need to clarify what “world” a person is being removed from and under which mechanisms these three traits provoke such ejection.
Removal from the world could be a warning for Divine punishment in the World to Come. Alternatively, it could indicate removal from this world as well, either as a supernatural punishment from G-d or perhaps as a natural consequence of exercising these three traits. These qualities can lead one into dangerous interactions, with potentially drastic consequences. Additionally, embodying these psychological characteristics could lead to internal physiological consequences which may shorten a person’s life. Finally, “world” here may denote the “social world,” meaning that these qualities will lead to social exclusion (Tikkun Moshe).
Let us analyze each trait in turn.
Rabbeinu Yonah provides a fascinating explanation of the evil eye, which although scientifically outdated, provides us a paradigm we can use to update his formulation. He writes:
[O]ne who is not happy with his lot [and] places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. [It is] like the wise men of science say about everything that is his neighbor’s: vapor comes up from that thought and burns the things that he put his eye towards with an evil eye. He also burns [himself] inside. Since he desires things, the thought of which he does not have the ability in his hand to materialize, he destroys his body – as he shortens his spirit and removes it from the world.
In a word, Rabbeinu Yonah is saying that envy destroys both the person who feels envy and the person he is envying. His explanation is based on “the wise men of science,” who understood the evil eye quite literally. As Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin (2021) notes, the theory of the evil eye causing actual physical damage was based on a scientific theory known as extramission:
From ancient times, the idea that animals and people can affect their surroundings with their eyes was considered perfectly normal, and even to have a scientific basis. Whereas modern science reveals that the eye only absorbs radiation, in antiquity the eye was thought to emit radiation – a kind of “fire.” Plato wrote about how this fire emerges from the eyes and combines with daylight to form a homogenous entity, through which images are conducted back into the eye. When coupled with harmful intent on behalf of the viewer, this radiation was thought to become especially dangerous.
While that particular aspect of the theory doesn’t match the contemporary scientific understanding of how the eye works, the fact that envy as a psychological phenomenon can cause physiological damage still holds true. According to Smith, Combs, and Thielke (2008), “Dispositionally envious people should have particular trouble sustaining well-being, positive emotions, or social functioning. There is evidence that dispositional envy may indeed be associated with a host of negative mental health outcomes.” It is connected with having lower self-esteem and lower satisfaction with life, and correlated with depression, neuroticism, hostility, and resentment. Besides the negative impact on psychological well-being, these are all also connected with other physical ailments that can shorten life, such as cardiovascular morbidity.
Rambam understands evil inclination as referring to “much desire.” Tashbatz elaborates, writing that the fulfilling of too much desire related to eating, drinking, and intimate relations can lead to physical illnesses that will shorten a person’s life. Unfortunately, the current data supports such commentaries. According to recent reports, in the United States, over 500,000 people die each year due to poor diet and physical inactivity, 480,000 due to tobacco-related deaths, 140,000 from alcohol-related causes, and over 109,000 due to drug overdose. This doesn’t account for the suffering and hardship caused by these behaviors that do not result in death. While it would be reductionist to attribute all these problems to “much desire,” the dangers of the evil inclination are apparent.
Hatred of People
Rashi writes that hatred of people alludes to “baseless hatred,” which is infamous for its role in the destruction of the Second Temple. Bartenura assumes it is referring to a hostile personality: “And I heard, [this is referring to] a hard man, who brings the hatred of the creations upon him and causes all to hate him.” Midrash Shmuel takes a slightly more vulnerable approach, writing that such a person will have no social support system. He will have nobody to tell his secrets to, which, Midrash Shmuel writes, will make his soul sick, and his life will be shortened due to anxiety and worry.
Rambam focuses on the ramifications of different emotional challenges. He writes that hatred of people is referring to the sickness of the black bile which brings a man to be disgusted with that which his eyes see and he will hate it and he will prefer the company of animals and isolation in wildernesses and in forests and he will choose an uninhabited place, and this is with them not because of asceticism but rather because of the lack of desire and their jealousy of others.
As Tashbetz notes, Rambam here is referring to the disease of melancholy, which can cause psychological, physiological, and physical damage. Yet Tashbetz himself disagrees with Rambam, because melancholy is in the purview of medicine, “and it is not in the hands of an individual to be saved from these illnesses.” He seems to be indicating that the messages in the Mishna are limited to areas that a person has the ability to control and improve on his or her own, whereas melancholy requires professional help. Presumably, Rambam would argue in response that there are things a person can do to help combat melancholy, as in fact he writes explicitly in his introduction to Pirkei Avot:
Similarly, one who suffers from melancholia may rid himself of it by listening to singing and all kinds of instrumental music, by strolling through beautiful gardens and splendid buildings, by gazing upon beautiful pictures, and other things that enliven the mind and dissipate gloomy moods. The purpose of all this is to restore the healthful condition of the body, but the real object in maintaining the body in good health is to acquire wisdom.
This debate may reflect the often blurry lines between how much of mental illness is within a person’s control and how much is beyond interventions of personal agency.
While there are some overlapping features between melancholy and what we refer to now as depression, it is essential to note that the medieval understanding is not the same as the modern conceptualization (see Tacchi & Scott, 2017). Yet even with this caveat in mind, there is evidence that the corresponding features of “hatred of humankind,” whether hostility, social isolation, anxiety, or depression, are correlated with cardiovascular disease and early mortality (Suls, 2011; Hunt et al., 2017).
What emerges is that besides any possible ramifications that “an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind” may portend for the World to Come, the this-worldly manifestations are readily apparent. To whatever extent possible, we should avoid envy, desire, and hate, and instead work on cultivating love, contentment, and peace of mind, which can lead to a long life of interpersonal and spiritual flourishing.