Vayeira: Avoid the Evil Eye, Keyanhora!

I know what the expression “she’s giving me the evil eye” means in ordinary English expression – an angry or “dirty” look, as if intended to do harm.

I have a general impression of what the phrase “ayin ha’ra” (evil eye) means to some in Judaism – a “superstition” that certain speech, action, or circumstance will tempt or invite mischief (because, evidently, “evil spirits” are constantly alert for such opportunities).  Mezuzot are considered by some/many to be protective, and here in Israel, one frequently sees palm-shaped “hamsas” (amulets) – “Hamsa” referring to “hamesh,” or “five,” i.e. the five fingers -  on wall hangings, jewelry, and elsewhere to “ward off the ‘evil eye.’”  Even “non-superstitious” Jews will sometimes use the word keynahora, an abbreviation for “keyn ayen horeh,” no (i.e. without wishing to tempt) the Evil Eye. 

And I’m aware from Mussar training (practical Jewish ethics and character development) that it’s important to be humble and modest*, lest one create envy and ill will.

But I never associated these three ideas until I read a D’var Torah about this week’s Portion, Vayeira.  (I acknowledge Rabbi Eli Mansour’s Torah Learning Resources for the following insight, although his focus leads elsewhere.  “Torah Predictions,” http://www.learntorah.com/lt-shiur-details.aspx?id=9483.) 

Three angels notified Abraham that Sarah would become pregnant. When she heard the news, she laughed, noting her husband’s age. (Gen 18:12). G-d then asked her why she laughed, but she denied laughing, saying that she was afraid.  (Gen. 18:15)  

Why was she afraid?

The Talmud teaches that if we want to retain the blessings in our life, we must not flaunt them.  Doing so will arouse jealously and ill will ….  an “evil eye.”  Not from, or not only from, “evil spirits,” but from others.

According to the rabbinic source, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Sarah knew that Ishmael, Abraham’s son from her maidservant, Hagar, was standing outside the tent listening to the conversation in which she learns of the prophecy of her pregnancy.  Sarah “feared” that were she to react joyously, or even take the prophecy seriously, Ishmael would be envious and his “evil eye” would be aroused.  So, she dismissed the announcement within his hearing. 

What does this teach us? 

That “humility” may have been Sarah’s motivation for answering as she did, 

That we should be circumspect and humble about the blessings in our lives (especially around others do not share those blessings and/or for whom there may be undesired consequences), and

That we should be hesitant to dismiss “superstitions,” such as the “evil eye.”  Even if we don’t believe them literally, when considered figurative or as a reflection of “human nature,” they can definitely teach us important truths.  

Shabbat shalom from Sderot, Israel. 

* I’m reminded of a joke about a rabbi who testified in court.  He was asked, “Rabbi, you are the leading halachic expert on this subject, correct?”  He answered, “Yes, that’s true.”  On cross-examination, the opposing attorney challenged him, “You say you’re the expert; aren’t you supposed to be humble?”  The rabbi responded, “What can I do? I’m under oath!”  

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