Fish and Ayin Harah

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Dec 13, 2003

Parshas Vayechi 5763


The English language give fish rather a bad break. To say that something is fishy is to imply that there is something suspect about it. Certainly if you wanted to compliment someone the last thing you would do is say that he reminds you of a fish.

Strikingly in the Torah the opposite seems to hold true. When יעקב wants to bless his grandchildren, אפרים ומנשה, that they should grow into great peoples he blesses them with the following famous words: המלאך הגואל אותי ... וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ, and they should multipy like fishes in the midst of the land.

If you think about it, the metaphor is very puzzling - to multiply like fishes in the midst of the land. No doubt fish are very prolific, as anyone who has ever raised them can tell you. But they generally do their proliferating in the water, not on land. It seems a very mixed-up metaphor to say that they should multiply like fishes in the midst of the land.

Let's first understand why יעקב chose to compare Yosef's children to fish. Why didn't he say, for instance, that they should multiply like rabbits? Or like hamsters? Why fish?

The Gemara in ברכות explains that Yosef and his children are compared to fish; for just as fish are concealed by water, and so not susceptible to עין הרע, the evil eye, so too the descendants of יוסף are not susceptible to עין הרע.

The idea of עין הרע is ubiquitous among Jews. If you look at someone with jealousy, you give him an עין הרע. Try not to show off, so as not to provoke an עין הרע.

R' Kook, in one of his דרשות, explains the idea of עין הרע as an example of the hidden influences which exist betweeen נשמות. We know that people are extraordinarly sensitive to how other people feel towards them. We have a kind of antenna that picks up other people's emotions when they are projected towards us.

And therefore an atmosphere of hatred and jealousy poisons the spiritual atmosphere, especially for the person towards whom those emotions are directed.

However, continues R' Kook, different people - different נשמות - are affected by this kind of atmosphere in different ways. If a person's sense of self is poorly developed, if his inner resources are weak, if he needs other people's approval, then he gives them the power to harm him.

עין הרע has power only to the extent that we give it power. If we live by other's valuation, if we value ourself by how much others approve of us, if we see ourselves through other people's eyes, then we give them power over us, and we give their jealousy and animosity the power to harm us.

But if we live by our own inner light, if our own inner resources are strong, if we don't need other people's approval, then their emotions and jealousies - their עין הרע - cannot touch us.

Fish are not concerned with anything that is outside the water. They live in their own world, in their own environment. And therefore they represent the kind of inner directedness that renders a person immune from עין הרע.

And the person who epitomized that type of existence was יוסף. It was יוסף who was thrust at a young age alone and unprotected into a hostile and pagan world, cut off from his home, from his family, from everything familiar, who experienced the most remarkable visicitues of fortune, from slave to monarch, and who, through it all, remain constant and true to his own inner truths, who steered unwaveringly by his own binnacle, who lived fully in how own inner world, even as he interacted so completely with the outside world.

And now we are in a position to understand the tremendous aptness of the metaphor which יעקב applies to יוסף's descendants: וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ, they shall be like fish on land. A fish on land cannot last very long - unless he takes some of the sea with him. יוסף lived his whole life a fish out of water - a Jew alone in a hostile environment. But he carried the sea within him. His own inner resources were so strong, that the attitudes and values of the world around him could have no affect.

And therefore יוסף and his children are immune from עין הרע.

This insight of R' Kook has, I would suggest, tremendous relevence to us today. Today, too, we live in an environment whose values are very different than ours, and that is often hostile to us and to what we hold most dear. It is not always easy, in the face of that hostility, to remain true to ourselves. And it is not always easy not to internalize that hatred, and to begin to hate ourselves.

This has always been a danger for us - especially since the emancipation. So long as we lived in the ghetto, fish in water, the hostility of the outside world could harm our bodies, but could not touch our souls. But as soon as the ghetto walls came down, and we begin to live within society at large, we began to see that Jews whose inner resources were not strong, who were not sufficiently armored with Jewish learning and Jewish self-confidence, would be destroyed in spirit by the hostility around them. We begin to encounter the phenomenon of the self-hating Jew; the Heine and the Marx and the Chomsky, Jews who have internalized the hatred around them who have begun to hate themselves.

Go to any college campus today, go almost anywhere in Europe, and you will find such Jews, whose inner resources were too weak to withstand the hatred all around them, נשמות that have been done in by עין הרע, and have started to hate themselves and their own people.

And that is the challenge of the hour. We have to give our brothers and sisters - and ourselves - some of the inner strength of יוסף, some of that capacity to live within ourselves, at peace within ourselves, fortified within ourselves, so that we can ignore the evil eyes that surround us.

And the surest way to do that is through the study of Torah. חז"ל compare the Torah to a sea, and the Jewish people to the fish who inhabit it. If we are to be like יוסף, to fulfill the ברכה of וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ, fish who can flourish on dry land, it can only be by carrying that sea with us, by carrying it within us.

And we have to share that with other Jews. There is nothing more vital today for the survival of the Jewish people than spreading the study of Torah as widely as possible.

In that merit may we be זוכה to that ברכה which יעקב gave to יוסף's descendants: המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערים ויקרא בהם שמי ושם אבותי וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ



Drosho for Vayechi 5763

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the eighth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser and by Aviva & Yossi Hoch and Judy & Mark Frankel and their families to mark the yahrtzeit of Carol Jacobs, Kayla bas Moshe Mordechai a"h and by Harris and Elisheva Teitz Goldstein l'zecher nishmos their parents HaRav Noah and Beverly Goldstein z'l, on their yahrzeits