GOOD MORNING! As the United States slowly begins to reopen from the closures and lockdowns of 2020, it is time to reflect on what we, as individuals, have learned from this experience. Of course, people were impacted in different ways; some suffered terribly while others actually prospered, and most people fell somewhere in between.

But there is one common experience that was shared by practically all – each person spent a LOT more time with themselves. Some found this exhilarating, while others found it quite trying. However, it is now time to take stock of what we learned about ourselves and begin to answer the most important question: Where do we go from here?

In a previous issue, I mentioned that when most people assess themselves and their personal relationships they focus primarily on two areas: their relationship with God and their relationships with others (friends, family, neighbors, etc.).

But there is a key relationship that people intentionally ignore – their relationship with themselves. The reason for this is that most people are afraid to confront the difficult questions that must be answered when assessing this relationship. Do I respect myself? Do I love myself? Can I trust myself? Do I even like myself (which is a very different question than do I love myself)?

Of course, many factors contribute to our complex self-relationship, but at the most basic level we need to have a clear vision of how we perceive ourselves. Unfortunately, self-image is often clouded or colored by experiences in our lives that were outside of our control.

For example: A distant or difficult parent may have given us the impression that we are not really worthy of love. A hypercritical (or just plain mean) teacher may have left us feeling that we are unintelligent or incompetent. Self-absorbed and narcissistic friends may have made us feel unattractive or incapable of maintaining a healthy friendship.

On the other hand, a loving parent can give us the gift of understanding and ingrain in us the knowledge that we are worthy of love. An empowering teacher can confer a lifetime of self-esteem, and healthy friendships can teach us much about being trustworthy and loyal.

Most people live their entire lives with their self-image determined by other people’s actions and perceptions of who they are. But this is a terrible mistake.

One of the greatest sages of the Talmud was known simply as “Rav” (“master”). The Talmud quotes a fascinating teaching from him: “Rav explained the following verse, ‘Hashem will remove all illness from you’ (Devarim 7:15) as a reference to the ‘evil eye,’ which is the source of most illness” (Bava Metzia 107b).

For thousands of years Jews have been concerned with “ayin hora – the evil eye.” Jewish law even maintains specific customs that are meant to avoid falling victim to ayin hora. Nowadays, many have adopted thoroughly meaningless practices to ward off ayin hora (perhaps the most ubiquitous is the practice of wearing a red string on one’s wrist).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who died in 1986, was considered the preeminent sage of the second half of the 20th century. Rabbi Feinstein was world renowned for his genius and brilliant teachings and was said to have a photographic memory. He would field questions from Jewish communities all over the world and render rulings. Eventually, Rabbi Feinstein published all these questions and answers as a nine volume set known as Igros Moshe.

In relation to the concept of the ayin hora, Rabbi Feinstein ruled: “While we definitely need to be concerned with the ‘evil eye’ we should not be overly particular. With these types of matters, the principle is – if one is not bothered by it, it doesn’t bother him” (Even Ha’ezer 3:26).

This ruling is rather difficult to understand. We have many sources (such as the above teaching from Rav in the Talmud) that indicate that the “evil eye” is a serious issue, and Jewish law has many customs that have been adopted to avoid it. Does ayin hora have real efficacy or is it merely imagined?

The great medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi informs us that one of the blessings that Jacob gave his son Joseph was that he should be impervious to the “evil eye” (see Genesis 49:22 and Rashi ad loc). This too requires an explanation, if ayin hora has a real power to it then how does a blessing to be impervious to it have any efficacy? For example, one cannot be “blessed” that a knife shouldn’t pierce their skin.

So how are we to understand the power of the “evil eye” and how does it really work? Is it just some mystical concept or does it have a practical understanding from which we can learn how to overcome it, or at least do our best to avoid the issue?

My father, who has a thorough understanding of Jewish mysticism but is also deeply rooted in the practical applications of Jewish philosophy and Jewish law in everyday life, explains the concept of ayin hora in the following manner.

Most people lead their lives (and also fashion their aspirations to achieve) by observing what everyone else does or achieves. At the most basic level this would be called “keeping up with the Joneses.”

In other words, most people formulate their lives by other people’s standards and perceptions. What I want is determined by what they have or how I want others to look at me (e.g. clothes, cars, vacations, and homes).

This is exemplified by society’s obsession with “reality shows.” These shows give us a baseline to judge ourselves and our accomplishments; some shows make us feel superior (The Jerry Springer Show), while other leave us feeling insufficient or even jealous (Cribs).

On an even more basic level, consider the gnawing feeling you get when you know you are being watched. It’s uncomfortable because you feel you are constantly being scrutinized and perhaps even judged and criticized. This scrutiny gives the observer a measure of control – because we allow it to define how we act and how we feel about ourselves. This is the fundamental power of the “evil eye” and it can have a deleterious effect on us if we allow it.

Allowing other people’s opinions to define us, and changing our behavior based on the actions and opinions of others, has a very real effect on our lives. That is the incredible power of ayin hora.

This is also the source of much of the lack of self-esteem and self-worth that many people have. Whether the origination of these insecurities came from one’s parents, teachers, friends, or “celebrities” we are living within their real or imagined perceptions of us, and that’s a terrible thing.

We have to all face the daunting truth: We cannot go on living our lives blaming others for how we think, how we perceive ourselves, and how we behave. We have to take responsibility for ourselves and our lives; we must actively decide what we believe and how we wish to act.

This is very difficult to change, but it can be done. To begin, we have to stop looking at everyone else and start looking within. What do I want to achieve? Why? What kind of person do I want to be? What path will give me a fulfilling and meaningful life? What makes me happy and what kind of lifestyle do I really need to be happy?

When we begin to wrap our arms around who we really are then we can address our core issues and we can start to live our own lives. Maybe this is what we were supposed to learn from spending all that time with ourselves over the last year.

When we stop being concerned with everyone else’s lives AND stop being overly concerned with what they think of us, we can be released from the power of ayin hora. Perhaps, this is what Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, meant when he said regarding it “if one is not bothered by it, it will not bother him.”

Torah Portion of the Week

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 14:9;
Metzora, Leviticus 14: 1 - 15:33

The Torah continues with the laws of physical and spiritual purity. The focus of this portion is upon tzora'as, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted home, clothes, and then one's skin — unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah.

There are three types of speech transgressions: 1) Loshon hora (literally “evil tongue”) – making a derogatory or damaging statement about someone even though you are speaking the truth. 2) Motzie shem ra – slander – where what is spoken is negative and false. 3) Rechilus (literally “tale bearing”) – telling someone the negative things another person said about him or did against him. Check out PowerOfSpeech.org for daily lessons in Shmirat HaLashon, proper speech.

Candle Lighting Times

Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.
— Malcolm S. Forbes


Dedicated In Loving Memory of

Binyomin Yitzchok ben Meir
 

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig