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Parashat VaYechi – 01/01/2010

Parashat VaYechi – 01/01/2010

submitted by Robert Rabinoff


In our portion Ya’akov gives his final blessings to his sons, the progenitors of the tribes of Israel.  In addition, he anoints Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, as full-fledged tribes in their own right, thus making Yosef a true transition figure between the Patriarchs (as he was the father of two of the tribes) and the tribes themselves.  The total number of tribes is always 12.  If the Levites are counted in the number (for example, when giving the blessings and curses on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal) then Ephraim and Menashe are counted together as one.  When the Levites are not counted, as in the order of march in the wilderness, then Ephraim and Menashe are each counted as a separate tribe.

When Ya’akov gives his special blessing to Yosef’s sons he uses an interesting phrase: “vayidgu larov b’kerev ha’aretz.”  This is generally translated “and may they increase abundantly within the Land [of Israel].”  The first word, vayidgu is construed to come from the word dag, or fish.  Just as fish spawn abundantly in the sea, so should these young men increase abundantly in the Land that Gd has promised to the Jewish people.

This identification with the fish of the sea has a subtext that is brought out in the Talmud and Midrash.  Just as fish are immune from the “evil eye,” so the Yosef tribes are immune from the evil eye.  What is the “evil eye”?

If you ever heard your East European grandparents or great-grandparents speak of some good fortune someone has had (like a child graduating from medical school) you’ll often hear the news terminated with the expression “kinnehora.”  This is short for the Yiddish expression kein ayin ha’ra – “no evil eye.”  Somehow good fortune appears to have the tendency to draw its opposite to itself, and this sort of reflexive backfiring from nature is what we call the “evil eye.”  By saying “kinnehora” we attempt to deflect the backfire.

The backfire is often explained as a result of people’s jealousy when they see someone else’s good fortune.  The fact that these feelings of jealousy can affect us, and in fact can affect the material world, speak to the profound interconnectedness that exists between individuals, and between individual human consciousness and the material world.  (I might suggest that a lot of the negativity towards the US from much of the rest of the world is an example writ large of ayin ha’ra.)

Why are the fish in the sea immune from the evil eye?  Our Sages tell us that since they live in the sea, unseen from above, the evil eye cannot penetrate and harm them.  What we learn is that the way to avoid the evil eye is to live modestly.  There is nothing wrong with wealth, or accomplishment, or good living in Judaism.  The material world was given to human beings to enjoy, and to use as a vehicle for spiritual evolution.  R. Yehudah haNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah and one of our greatest Sages and one of the holiest of our leaders, was fabulously wealthy.  He certainly “had it all.”  He had a large household as befits a leader who had to deal with the ruling classes and had to handle the affairs of the entire Jewish community worldwide.  Yet every bit of the material wealth that he was given, he used for the benefit of others, to the point that on his deathbed he raised his hands towards heaven and was able to proclaim in all honesty “It is known and revealed before You that I haven’t taken even my little finger’s worth of personal benefit from all my wealth.”  It is simply not possible to send “negative vibes” in the direction of someone like that; even if one tried, his innocence and humility would not present a target for any negativity.

In the same way, Yosef did not present himself as a target for negativity, at least after his experience with an Egyptian dungeon did away with whatever arrogance he may have had as a youth.  Here he was, submerged in a sea of debauchery and callousness, alone and uncomprehended, estranged from his spiritual moorings, and finally raised to a position of fabulous wealth and power.  Through all these vicissitudes Yosef remained so true to his core values that he is the only personality in the Bible who is referred to as HaTzaddik (the righteous one).  Just as his eye didn’t stray, as in the incident with Potiphar’s wife, and just as he didn’t project negativity towards others, he and his descendents are immune from the evil eye – from negativity directed at them from others.

I believe the lessons for us are clear.  In our society we’ve been given an unprecedented level of material wealth.  How are we going to use that gift?  Are we going to become so attached to it that we’d do anything to maintain our lifestyle?  Or are we going to use it to serve others?  Are we going to waste our leisure time in front of a TV watching some ephemeral nonsense, or are we going to spend it gaining wisdom, or serving others, or both?  Are we going to flaunt our wealth, or are we going to live modestly?  It has often been stated that wealth is a greater challenge than poverty.  Are we going to live in a miserly way that attracts the evil eye, or one in a spirit of generosity to all, so that the evil eye finds no target in us.  We should be thankful to Gd that we have the choice, and we should all pray that Gd should give us the strength and clarity to make those choices wisely.  Kinnehora!

Editor’s Note: This is the 48th Anniversary of Bob Rabinoff’s Bar Mitzvah.  Thank you, Bob, for your weekly contributions to help us increase our knowledge and understanding of Torah.