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There was once a very successful businessman who had no rest from worrying about ayin hara. He adopted all the various segulot to ward off the evil eye from his family and possessions. Finally, in an act of desperation, he approached the county office and had the number of the address of his palatial home changed to 555, as the number five is traditionally potent in protecting from ayin hara.

Is this the right approach to dealing with ayin hara?

Although people like to say there is no such thing as ayin hara, this gemara clearly indicates that ayin hara exists. In fact, there are many sources about the negative impact of ayin hara. For instance, the gemara states that Rav made a “visual autopsy” of a cemetery. After visiting a graveyard, he concluded that only one out of a hundred there died of natural causes. All the rest died as a result of ayin hara. This may sound alarming, but not to worry, keep reading and you will soon be relieved.

Secret of Protection

The secret of protection is found in the blessing Ya’akob Avinu gives to Yosef, before he passes on: “Ben porat Yosef aleh ayin.” Literally, this reads that Yosef was the charming one, on the eye. Meaning, anybody that looked at him was struck by his good looks. However, the gemara reads it differently. Not, “Aleh ayin - to the eye,” but “Oleh ayin -rises above the eye.” Which eye does Yosef  rise above? The ayin hara - the evil eye. Ya’akob was blessing Yosef with the power to transcend the ayin hara.

Based on this, the gemara in Masechet Berachot (p. 55) reveals a special segulah to ward off ayin hara. All one needs to do is say, “Ana mizar’ah d’yosef ka’atina d’lo shaltah beh enah bisha - I am from the descendants of Yosef to whom the ayin hara does not affect.”

This may be comforting, but the Chida, in his Dvash Lfi, asks what happens if you don’t come from Yosef? We generally don’t know what tribe we come from. So, what does it help to say this phrase? If you are from the tribe of Yosef, there is no need; you are already immune, and if you are not a descendant of Yosef - it’s lying.

The Maharsha deals with this question by explaining you don’t have to be related to Yosef. It’s a mystical segulah saying that works like magic. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest a different answer, by uncovering a deeper interpretation to this segulah.

What is Ayin Hara?

To understand the inner workings of this segulah and its connection to Yosef, we must first define ayin hara.

The key is to understand that everything in this world has both a physical and spiritual component. We naturally pay first attention to the outer physical veneer. However, even scientists have already discovered that what appears be physical, “inanimate” matter has an inner world of subatomic electrons that are in constant orbit around protons. Our Hachamim already understood this thousands of years ago. They revealed that that there is an inner divine nucleus hidden within the material world. That is why the Hebrew word for world -“olam” is connected to the word “ne’elam,” meaning hidden.

The Ropshitzer Rebbe writes that ayin hara comes when someone gets impressed solely by the external and does not recognize that that here is an internal connection to the hidden spiritual component. Getting wowed by nice things cuts that item from its source. Once something has been severed from its root, it becomes vulnerable to damage. This happens all the time when people exclaim, “Oh, what a beautiful child. Oh, what a beautiful house.” This is true even if he is impressed in a positive way, without any malicious intent.

Counteract Approach

The Rebbe continues and writes that if this is how the ayin hara can damage, then the way to counteract it is to cast one’s eyes to Heaven. This reattaches the item to its roots.

For example, if someone would come up to me and say, “Rabbi, I really like your suit,” he is becoming enchanted with the outer trappings. He’s not looking at the big picture, how Hashem made the sheep and the wool, etc. At this point, the ball is in my court. If I react smugly, accepting his perspective, “Yeah, I have ten more like this,” then I have opened the door to trouble. Then, the jacket might get caught and rip on banister on the way out of shul… as often happens to me.

So, to protect ourselves from ayin hara, we must react properly to compliments. First, reply, “Thank you.” This is proper derech eres. Then say, “Baruch Hashem” or “Yishtabach Shmo.” This is how we reconnect it and prevent the ill effects of the external perspective. Of course, you don’t have to get too heavy and give the person a whole sermon about how it all came from Hashem. Just react with “Yishtabach Shmo,” and mean it. Don’t just parrot it.

I have found two sources in Bereshit for this approach:

The first precedent is from Yosef himself, who is the master of preventing ayin hara. When Pharaoh called Yosef out of the dungeon to interpret his dreams, he lavishes upon him compliments and flattery, essentially saying, “You see all my wise men here? None of them could interpret my dream. I hear that you are the expert. You’re gifted!” What was he doing? He was trying to put an ayin hara on Yosef’s talent. Ayin hara is not just on possessions or on a person; it can also impact our Gd-given talents. “Wow what an incredible doctor you are.” “What a gifted painter.” This separates the talent from Gd.

What Pharaoh didn’t realize is that Yosef is the master of overcoming ayin hara. He responds with one word: “Biladai - It’s not me. Gd will give the answer.” At that moment, Yosef reconnected his talent to Hashem. He was willing to endanger himself by contradicting the king, because he knew that if he agrees with him, he will be subject to the ayin hara and lose all his power.

Where did Yosef learn this defense from? I believe he learnt it from his father, Ya’akob, and this is the second source.

Ya’akob Deflected the Ayin Ra

In Parashat Vayishlach Esav approaches Ya’akob with four hundred soldiers. The Zohar says that Esav specifically sent that number because he was trying to attack Ya’akob with ayin hara, and the gematria of 400 is “ayin ra - evil eye.” When Esav arrives, it says, “Vayisa et enav - Esav lifts up his eyes.” What eyes? The evil eye. He views Yaakob’s impressive family, with his many children and grandchildren, all powerful, handsome, and healthy. He says to Ya’akob, “Mi eleh lach? - who are these to you?” He attributes all this blessing exclusively to Ya’akob, as though it was all his personal accomplishment. Esav only sees the superficial, not the hashgacha pratit - the divine intervention that brought Ya’akob to this.

Ya’akob protects himself and answers him right back, “Hayiladim asher chanan Elokim et avdecha oti - Hashem has graced me these children. You can’t give me ayin hara. I respond by attributing it all back to Hashem.”

Who witnessed that exchange? Yosef! He learned this tactic from his father.

Everybody loves to receive compliments, but we can fall into the trap of letting it go to our head. Therefore, the Torah taught us these two stories, in which people were either complimented about their talent or their family, and the proper response to be saved from ayin hara. The reaction in both cases was “Yishtabach shmo,” it’s all from Gd. And they were saved.

This does not mean that you can’t tell people the history of how you built your house. But first, tell them it’s from Hashem, and then tell your story. The moment we forget Gd, we are susceptible to ayin hara. If you adapt this, you will always be protected.

Dangers of External Living

On a deeper level, the reason ayin hara is so prevalent in today’s society is because we live in a very superficial society. In fact, the Vilna Gaon writes that that the generation before Mashiach will be very superficial. Today, everything is sold by the outer trappings and people are judged by the way they look. Image is everything.

The Zohar Hakadosh writes that if we had spiritual eyes to see beneath the surface, we would see that everything has a nucleus of Gdliness. When a woman cooks food for Shabbat, even inside the rice, there is a divine spark. The Mishna Berura writes that the physical part of the food nourishes the body and the spiritual component nourishes the soul. Yet our society focuses only on all the advertisements and pictures of food, homes, and fashion. We only see the outside - what other people wear or what car they drive.

To make matters worse, people who fall into this trap of external living begin to believe in it and actually want to show off. This is why ayin hara is prevalent. So, on a deeper level, it’s not enough to say “Baruch Hashem.” We have to change our mindset and see things from the inside.

Keeping A Secret

One important application of having an inward perspective is our ability to keep a secret. Some people just have to “spill the beans.” The sad saying goes that the best way to publicize a piece of information is to tell someone, “It’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone.” The gemara goes to great lengths in praising a person who can hold privileged information inside. This is the same trait that we are talking about. If someone can keep information to himself, he can also avoid flaunting what he has and expose himself to ayin hara.

On this note, the Ramban and the Da’at Zekenim both point out that once Yosef is reunited with his father in Egypt, we don’t hear of any further interaction between them, until seventeen years after Yaakob’s arrival, when he calls Yosef to his death bed. This is very difficult to understand. Yosef was the apple of his father’s eye and was torturously separated from him for so many years. Wouldn’t we have expected them to be in close daily contact once they were reunited?

The answer is that Yosef  knew that once he would be alone with his father, the first thing Ya’akob would do is ask him what happened. How did he get sold to Egypt? Yosef wanted at all costs to avoid revealing his brothers’ treachery towards him. So, for seventeen years he avoided his father in order to keep a secret! All of his trials and tribulations were kept on the inside. So, it is no wonder that a man who can hold a secret like that is not subject to ayin hara. On the other hand, someone who can’t keep a secret is focused on exposing that which should remain private. That type of person is liable to both give and receive ayin hara.

Yosef’s Special Trait

We can now also understand why Ya’akob blesses Yosef’s offspring, “Vayidgu l’rov”- to multiply like the fish. The Rabbis explain that fish are blessed with such multitudes of fertility because they live beneath the surface, out of sight, with no possibility of ayin hara. This was Yosef’s trait. He looked at his talents from the inside, attributing them to Gd, and he knew how to keep secrets inside. He was like a fish under water, free from ayin hara, and that is why his tribe merited the blessing of flourishing with blessed prosperity.

When a person is free of ayin hara, he can prosper and flourish tremendously.  But in a society where everyone is trying to impress each other, everything becomes a show. People make a party, consciously trying to outdo the other person, to show they have more money and better style. In such a society, the ayin hara is very rampant and the blessings are diminished.

Rav Hillel Zaks, the grandson of the Hafetz Haim, once came to America and entered a fancy office that boasted a beautiful aquarium. He marveled at it and said, “This is symbolic of American society. The whole blessing of fish comes from their being underwater and out of sight. Yet here, in America, you go and take the fish and put their underwater life on display!” By living our lives on display, we empty ourselves of the blessings.

Live Like A Fish

Based on this idea, Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes in his Michtav Me’eliyahu (Vol. 4, p.6) that much ayin hara a person brings upon himself. If he cares about externals and shows off, he brings it on, not others. It’s self-inflicted damage. Only people who are concerned what other people think about them are susceptible to ayin hara. Just as the fish under water have no clue what’s going on above on the land. If you live like a fish and are oblivious to what others think of you, you will be protected.

Once a man told me that he noticed how he matured over the years. “When I was twenty, I didn’t want to go to shul because I had a pimple on my forehead. I was so worried what people would say about me. By the time I was thirty, I overcame this and went to shul, despite what people would say. When I reached forty, I finally realized that nobody was even looking. Nobody cared what I looked like. It was my own ego that projected me as the center of their attention.” This is the level where you achieve protection from ayin hara.

It is usually people who have low self-esteem who are interested in getting compliments and pleasing others. They get their boost when other people say “wow” about them. It’s not that you shouldn’t have nice things. Rather, whatever you have, you should have for yourself, and not for others.

Warding Off the Ayin Hara

Now we can return and answer our original question about how can we be so sure that we are the offspring of Yosef. The answer is that it does not mean that we are biological descendants. It means that we are disciples of Yosef. As the gemara states, a student is also considered a son. So, it’s not a lie, and it’s not merely a magic phrase. We ward off ayin hara by reaffirming that we strive to emulate Yosef’s traits of being an inner person. Like Yosef, we also want to see the divine hand in all our successes and achievements. We also want to be like Yosef and the fish who don’t try to impress others. We also learn from Yosef to keep secrets on the inside.

In conclusion, whichever of the various segulot you adopt for protection from ayin hara, they all lead us to the same destination. They are not just superficial superstitions. They are potent reminders to elevate ourselves and focus inwards, and thus transcend the ayin hara. This will, b’ezrat Hashem, enable us to flourish and receive all the blessings of Heavenly prosperity.