The Evil Eye
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )
As the children of Israel are encamped in the plains of Moav, danger looms from outside the camp.
A plot is in formation designed to mortally harm them. The assault is a strange one -- the conspirators will use spiritual powers to attack the Jews.
Balak, the king of Moab who is credited with being a significant diviner in his own right, seeks the assistance of Bil'am, a powerful seer.
Readers of the text have a difficult time understanding how Bil'am possessed such destructive power in the first place. It seems peculiar that God should have to get involved in order to frustrate this nefarious plan and not allow the curse to be uttered.
The traditional explanation is that Bil'am had an "evil eye" 1 and therefore was theoretically able to attack the Jews. This idea may be seen in the verses in the numerous references to "eyes" and "sight":
He sent messengers, therefore, to Bil'am, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying. "Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the eye2 of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now therefore, I pray you, curse this people for me; for they are too mighty for me; perhaps I shall prevail, that we may defeat them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed." (Numbers 22:5-6; see also Numbers 22:10-11,31)
And when Bil'am saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Bil'am lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him. And he took up his discourse, and said, "The speech of Bil'am, the son of Beor; the speech of a man whose eyes are open. The speech of him who heard the words of God, who saw the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes open." (Numbers 24:1-4; see also Numbers 24:15-16)
The Midrash relates to this quality as characteristic of Bil'am and his teachings:
From this you can infer that he possessed three qualities, viz. an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a greedy soul. How do we know that he had an evil eye? Because it is written, And Bil'am lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe. (Numbers 24:2). (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 20:10)
THE POWER TO BLESS AND CURSE
This destructive quality of Bil'am may explain a separate problem presented by Parshat Balak. If Bil'am senses that his attempts to curse the Jews are being frustrated, then why doesn't he bless Balak and his people? Either cursing the Jews or blessing the Moabites should have the same results: a victory for Moab. This question is predicated on the assumption that Bil'am has the ability to bless and curse with equal competence. This would seem to be the meaning of the verse cited above:
For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Numbers 22:5,6)
The ability to bless is foreign to Bil'am -- it does not seem to be a part of his make up. Perhaps the potential was there but the ability to bless seems to elude him now.
There are some men specially fitted for the transmission of blessings, as, for instance, a man of "good eye." There are others, again, who are specially fitted for the transmission of curses, and curses light wherever they cast their eyes. Such was Bil'am, who was the fitting instrument of evil and not of good, and even when he blessed his blessing was not confirmed, but all his curses were confirmed, because he had an evil eye. (Zohar, Leviticus 63b)
While the subject of "evil eyes" and similar magical phenomenon is vast and beyond the scope of this work, perhaps we can try to penetrate at least a partial understanding of the topic.3
Rabbi Soloveitchik once suggested that there is a difference between a evil eye which is used in some sources to describe a trait, and the destructive "evil eye" which is found in other sources. The latter may be better described as an outlook more than a trait. One type is internally centered, while the other is aimed at the outside toward others.
GOOD EYE VS. EVIL EYE
The Mishna in Avot recalls a conversation between Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai and his prized disciples. He asks them to discern a major trait to which a person should cling:
He [Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai] said unto them: "Go forth and observe which is the good way unto which a man should cleave?" Rabbi Eliezer said, "A good eye." ... He [further] said unto them: "Go forth and observe which is the evil way from which a man should remove himself far?" Rabbi Eliezer said, "An evil eye." (Avot 2:9.)
Rabbenu Yona in his comments to the Mishna identifies the "good eye" or the "evil eye" in this context as a trait. To feel miserly is a manifestation of this negative trait. To be generous is a manifestation of the positive "good eye."
Perhaps the paradigmatic example of the "good eye" would be Abraham. His kindness was ingrained to the core of his being and was not merely an outer directed behavior, lacking inner spiritual consistency. In a later Mishna in Avot we are told a "good eye" is prominently included in the description of traits of "students of Abraham." What is interesting in this context, is how Abraham's students' traits are contrasted with the traits of disciples of Bil'am.
Whoever possesses these three things, he is of the disciples of Abraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things, he is of the disciples of Bil'am, the wicked. The disciples of Abraham, our father, [possess] a good eye, an humble spirit and a lowly soul. The disciples of Bil'am, the wicked, [possess] an evil eye, a haughty spirit and an over-ambitious soul. (Avot 5:19)
The meaning of "evil eye" is not immediately clear in this context. Is it the destructive evil eye, or is it the trait which would serve as a better counter balance to the "good eye" of Abraham and disciples?
Because of the mention of Bil'am one would be tempted to associate the evil eye with Bilaam's destructive power. However, the text is surely easier to understand where the two types of disciples are contrasted. Furthermore, all the items listed in this Mishna sound like traits.
Therefore, we may conclude that Bil'am possessed both types of evil eye, the negative personality trait in addition to the destructive outlook. The classical "evil eye" which mesmerizes and haunts alike, and causes people to automatically say bli ein hara, is somewhat more elusive.
THE POWER OF JOSEPH
We are told that there are people who were impervious to its nefarious power, namely Joseph and his children or "students."4
Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine above the eye (Genesis 44:22). This teaches that the evil eye has no power over them. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 97)5
Rabbi Yochanan was accustomed of sitting at the gates of the bathing place. He said: "When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing they look at me. and they have children as handsome as I am." Said the rabbis to him: "Is not the Master afraid of the evil eye?" He replied: "I come from the seed of Joseph, over whom the evil eye has no power, as it is written, Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine above the eye."
Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Hanina derived it from this text: And let them multiply like fishes in the midst of the earth. Just as the fishes [dagim] in the sea are covered by water and the evil eye has no power over them, so the evil eye has no power over the seed of Joseph. Or, if you prefer I can say: "The evil eye has no power over the eye which refused to feed itself on what did not belong to it." 6(Berachot 20a, Baba Metzia 84a, Also see Sotah 36b)
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained Joseph's invulnerability in the following manner. Certain people live their lives based on the comments and perceptions of others. Joseph knew who he was and had confidence in himself, and did not change according to the whims of others. Joseph was not "swayed by the crowd." Therefore, Joseph was not susceptible to the "evil eye."
This is a deeper meaning of the last line in the citation from the Talmud. Joseph did not live based on things which did not belong to him therefore the destructive comments of others had no effect.
RABBINIC DREAM THEORY
This idea would have a parallel within rabbinic dream theory. On the one hand dreams are seen to have a certain affinity with prophecy. On the other hand dreams can be ignored with no ill effects. However, if a person receives an interpretation for his dream then a power is unleashed. In a word, dreams are in the eye of the beholder.
Rabbi Bana'ah: "There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. Once I dreamt a dream and I went round to all of them and they all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled, thus confirming that which is said: 'All dreams follow the mouth.'" (Brachot 55a)
This aspect of dreams is closely associated with prophecy itself. Often the prophets would receive images or visions and not specific words. This is known as receiving prophecy through a prism.7
Moses was the only prophet to receive exclusively words from God. Therefore, the prophet had a certain amount of leeway in describing, and interpreting his vision.8
Theoretically, Bil'am would receive his revelations at night, therefore in the morning he would be able to interpret his vision using his own words and create the negativity with his subjective interpretation. Obviously, if this were the case then the results would be devastating.9
BIL'AM VS. MOSES
This understanding allows us to penetrate the strange statement of the Sages describing the exalted status of Bil'am. The Torah states:
And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, Israel. (Deut. 34:10)
The rabbis explain:
And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel (Deut. 34:10): "In Israel" there had not arisen one like him, but there had arisen one like him among the nations of the world. This was in order that the nations of the world might have no excuse for saying: "Had we possessed a prophet like Moses we should have worshipped the Holy One, blessed be He." What prophet had they that was like Moses? Bil'am the son of Beor. There was a difference, however, between the prophecy of Moses and that of Bil'am.
There were three features possessed by the prophecy of Moses which were absent from that of Bil'am:
- When He [God] spoke with Moses the latter stood on his feet; as it says, But as for you, stand you here by Me, and I will speak unto you, etc. (Deut. 5:28). With Bil'am, however, He only spoke while the latter lay prone on the ground; as it says, Fallen down, and his eyes are opened (Numbers 24:4).
- With Moses He spoke mouth to mouth; as it says, With him do I speak mouth to mouth (ib. 12:8), while of Bil'am it says, The saying of him who heareth the words of God (ib. 24:4), which teaches that He did not speak with him mouth to mouth.
- With Moses He spoke face to face, as it says, And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face (Exodus 33:11), but with Bil'am He spoke only in parables; as is confirmed by the quotation, And he took up his parable, and said, etc. (Numbers 23:7). (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 14:20)
Of all prophets only Bil'am is compared favorably to Moses in terms of the quality of his prophecy. Though the Midrash takes pains to differentiate between the two, the very suggestion of a comparison seems obscene.
However because of Bil'am's misanthropic personality, once it was established that he must have the ability to prophesize, it was decreed that he must receive specific words - in order that he have no leeway in terms of interpretation. While other prophets received images and visions, their pure souls produced positive true approximations of the Divine will. The prophetic evil Bil'am could not be given this ability – especially with his "evil eye." He received direct words from God, not because he was on a higher level than all the other Jewish prophets, quite the opposite, because he was on a far lower level.10
The Zohar stresses the immense difference between the spiritual strata enjoyed by Moses, and the lowly Bil'am:
Said Rabbi Yehuda: "As Moses excelled all prophets in Israel in respect of the superior, holy prophecy, so Bil'am excelled all other pagan prophets and soothsayers in respect of the inferior, unholy prophecy. In any case Moses was above, Bil'am below, and there were numerous stages between them." (Zohar, Exodus Page 22a)
Bil'am would only be able to prophesize when prostrated. The Zohar understands this gesture, as if he were reaching down to grab something from the nether world, or at least something which was once a part of a higher world. In this context the Zohar proceeds and explains the source of Bil'am's power:
What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? (Psalems 8:5). Rav Shimon said: "[This] was uttered by those in charge of the world at the time when God expressed His intention of creating man. He called together various companies of heavenly angels and stationed them before Him. He said to them: 'I desire to create man.' They exclaimed, 'Man abides not in honor, etc. (Psalms 49:13).' God thereupon put forth His finger and burnt them. He then set other groups before Him, and said: 'I desire to create man.' They exclaimed, 'What is man that You should remember him? What is the character of this man?' they asked. He replied: 'Man will be in Our image, and his wisdom will be superior to yours.'
"When He had created man and he (man) sinned and obtained a pardon, Uzza and Azael approached Him and said: 'We can plead justification against You, since the man whom You made has sinned against You.' He said to them: 'Had you been with them you would have sinned equally.' And He cast them down from their high estate in heaven ...
"How are we to explain Bil'am's saying of himself, 'Falling and with eyes open'? For if this was merely an empty boast, how comes a false statement in the Torah? And if it is true, how could that sinner attain to a degree higher than that of all the true prophets, especially as the holiness from above rests only on a spot qualified to receive it? The fact is, however, that after God cast Uzza and Azael down from their holy place, they went astray after the womenfolk and seduced the world also. It may seem strange that being angels they were able to abide upon the earth.
" ... Now when God saw that these fallen angels were seducing the world, He bound them in chains of iron to a mountain of darkness. Uzza He bound at the bottom of the mountain and covered his face with darkness because he struggled and resisted, but Azael, who did not resist, He set by the side of the mountain where a little light penetrated. Men who know where they are located seek them out, and they teach them enchantments and sorceries and divinations. These mountains of darkness are called the 'mountains of the East,' and therefore Bil'am said: 'From Aram hath Balak brought me, from the mountains of the East,' because they both learnt their sorceries there.
"Now Uzza and Azael used to tell those men who came to them some of the notable things which they knew in former times when they were on high, and to speak about the holy world in which they used to be. Hence Bil'am said of himself: 'who hears the words of God' not 'the voice of God,' but those things which he was told by those who had been in the assembly of the Holy King."
He went on: "And knows the knowledge of the Most High", meaning that he [Bil'am] knew the hour when punishment impended over the world and could determine it with his enchantments.
"Who sees the vision of the Almighty: this vision consisted of the 'fallen and the open of eyes,' that is Uzza, who is called 'fallen' because he was placed in the darkest depth, since after falling from heaven he fell a second time, and Azael, who is called 'open of eye' because he was not enveloped in complete darkness. Bil'am called both of them 'the vision of the Almighty.' At that time he was the only man left in the world who associated with them, and every day he used to be shut up in those mountains with them." (Zohar, Numbers, Page 208b)
The Zohar understands that the knowledge which Bil'am possessed came from heaven via "fallen angels" 11 who knew the goings on in heaven. The idea of Bil'am having knowledge of heaven is also mentioned in the Talmud:
A God that has indignation every day. And how long does this indignation last? One moment ... And no creature has ever been able to fix precisely this moment except the wicked Bil'am, of whom it is written: He knows the knowledge of the Most High. Now, he did not even know the mind of his animal; how then could he know the mind of the Most High? The meaning is, therefore, only that he knew how to fix precisely this moment in which the Holy One, blessed be He, is angry...
Rabbi Eleazar says: "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: 'See now, how many righteous acts I performed for you in not being angry in the days of the wicked Bil'am. For had I been angry, not one remnant would have been left of the enemies of Israel.' And this too is the meaning of what Bil'am said to Balak: How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord has not execrated? (Berachot 7b)
In the course of the normal dealing with the world God would allow but a moment of anger. This idea seems obscure. One explanation which I have heard which is attributed to the Hassidic dynasty of Belz, explains this phenomenon.
Chesed, "kindness," is a wonderful attribute. But even kindness must have its limits. We know that chesed taken to an extreme is associated with incest, and illicit sexual relations:
And if a man shall take his sister, his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a chesed. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister's nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity. (Leviticus 20:17; see Rashi)
Chesed is wonderful, but too much chesed can be destructive. On a normal basis God holds back one moment a day from chesed, and allows strictness in order to help man avoid this spiritual pitfall. However, on that day while Balak and Bil'am were plotting and trying to harm the Jews there was not even a moment of judgement – only chesed.
SEDUCTION AND CHESED
Now we can understand the end of Parshat Balak. After Bil'am and Balak give up on cursing the Jews we find that the daughters of Moab have made their way to the camp of the Israelites.
And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Numbers 25:1-3)
Too much chesed allowed the appearance of illicit relations, perhaps Bil'am learned this idea from his erstwhile heavenly mentors. They too had turned God's gift for chesed and compassion into depraved relations on earth.
The Jews -- who were truly students of Abraham, and therefore had a "good eye" -- allowed these wayward women into their camp. In this instance a moment of strictness would have been in order. Bil'am saw that the Jewish camp is based on a "good eye" and the spiritual barometer pointed to a forecast of excessive chesed. Bil'am used the Jew's gifts and good traits against them. In this instance the community should have shown restraint, and understood, that as God has a moment of strictness so much the Jewish community.12
How ironic – while the "evil eye" did not harm them, the "good eye" did.
- See Rashi 24:2. (return to text)
- The Hebrew here is "eye" some English translations prefer the term "face of the Earth". However, the Midrash clearly renders the word "eye." (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 20:7). (return to text)
- Zohar, Genesis, Page 68b. (return to text)
- It is interesting, that when he was younger Joseph was susceptible to the Evil Eye: Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 89:10. (return to text)
- Zohar 2:225a Observe, likewise, that no evil eye had any power over the seed of Joseph. (return to text)
- The Zohar has a different explanation for Joseph's imperviousness to the "evil eye": Zohar, Numbers, Page 202b. (return to text)
- See Zohar Genesis, Page 183a. (return to text)
- Chagiga 13b. (return to text)
- Significantly rejecting a bad dream is directly related to God's frustration of Bil'am and his visions. (Berachot 55b)(return to text)
- This idea may be found in the Or Gidalya, see the discussion there (Parshat Balak) and the teachings taught in the name of Rav Diskin. (return to text)
- See Genesis 6:4 in reference to the Nifilim, and the comments of the Targum Yonatan. (return to text)
- Perhaps this is the connection between the death of the 24,000 as a result of the plague (25:9) for displaying too much chesed, and the death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (Yevamot 62b) who died because they did not perform enough chesed. (return to text)