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The Evil Eye: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:16

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

When everything we have just isn't enough.

"Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world." Ethics of the Fathers, 2:16

We all know that optimist who sees the glass half full and the pessimist who sees it half empty. But this familiar cliche offers a fundamental insight into human nature, the very same insight to which Rabbi Yehoshua alludes in our mishna.

The Talmud describes how a person naturally seeks to acquire 100 until, having finally attained his goal, he immediately sets his sights on 200, and then on 400, and on and on. It is part of our nature as human beings to pursue that which we do not have, and it is this propensity toward dissatisfaction that drives man's yetzer hara -- his evil inclination.

This lies at the heart of Rabbi Yehoshua's warning against an "evil eye": it is perception of reality, as much as reality itself, that influences human attitudes and actions. Consider the case of Hetty Green, cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as history's greatest miser. With a fortune of 100 million dollars in 1916 (the equivalent of 17 billion dollars today), Hetty Green saved scraps of soap and wore each dress until it became a filthy rag. Her son lost his leg needlessly, as she delayed treatment for a simple dislocation in search of a free clinic.

Despite her wealth, Hetty's lived a life as impoverished as if she hadn't a penny to her name. With her "evil eye" focused only on what she did not have, all her millions brought her no joy and no pleasure. Her inability to "see" the blessings God had bestowed upon her left her truly destitute, with no share in this world and no good deeds to stand by her in the World to Come.

The term yetzer hara, describing man's inclination to do evil, applies generically to every manner of temptation and motivation for choosing the path of the wicked over the ways of the righteous. At its source, however, the yetzer hara stems from man's dissatisfaction with his portion. Not enough money, not enough honor, not enough power, not enough physical pleasure -- these are the motives for theft, murder, adultery, and all variant forms of dishonesty and deceit.

It is the evil eye that fuels the evil inclination, measuring our possessions and our accomplishments against those of our neighbors, relentlessly seeking out what they have that we do not, and convincing us that all our wealth amounts to nothing as long as there is anything that we lack. Conversely, the ability to appreciate what we have is fundamental to individual happiness and the common welfare.

When the wicked prophet Bilaam invoked his blessing, "How good are your tents, Jacob," he referred to the modesty of the Jewish people who arranged their tents so every door faced away from every neighbor's door. But he hinted at a deeper insight as well. There are many spiritual avenues to reach the Almighty, and every person must find his own individual "doorway" to enter into his own relationship with God. To succeed in this, never look into anyone else's "door," never try to measure your own spiritual success relative to another's, for his door is not your door, and his success is not yours either.

The yetzer hara strives to convince us that what we have is not enough, whether in material possessions, spiritual achievement, or personal contentment. If we listen to its subversive advice, we can destroy everything that makes life in this world worthwhile and leave ourselves with no spiritual legacy for the next.

What happens when we continually measure ourselves against others? Inevitably, we see their grass as greener than ours, their lives more fulfilling, their portion more rewarding. This makes us not only dissatisfied with our own lot but resentful of them, so that we fabricate excuses to despise and hate them to justify our own feelings of resentment.

Because of senseless hatred, the Talmud teaches, the holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Yes, the Jews kept the mitzvot, studied Torah, brought their offerings, and honored the Shabbat. But they allowed their differences and their petty jealousies to divide them, eventually producing such destructive discord that Jewish society disintegrated.

In our previous mishna, we explained according to the Maharal of Prague that spiritual harmony requires three things: peace with the Almighty, peace with one's fellows, and peace with oneself. When we allow the "evil eye" to see only what we lack, we fail to recognize the blessings that God has given us. How easily will we then convince ourselves that He is not there for us, that He does not have our best interests at heart. When we allow such feelings to fester within ourselves, we cannot possibly attain peace with the Almighty.

Similarly, when we listen to the counsel of the yetzer hara, we find ourselves torn between our knowledge of what is good and our feelings of injustice and entitlement. This kind of inner tension makes it impossible for us to be at peace with ourselves.

Finally, when we measure our portion against that of others, we are bound to overvalue what they have that we don't and undervalue the ways our lot is superior to theirs. This can lead only to resentment and hatred, making it impossible to be at peace with our fellows.

Rabbi Yehoshua warns us that indulging our evil eye and our yetzer hara destroys the peace essential to spiritual well being. Without spiritual well being there is no physical well being, leaving a person with no meaningful life, not in this world and not in the World to Come.

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