Parashat Vayera: Protection From the Evil Eye
Parashat Vayera begins with the story of the three angels who visited Abraham and informed him that Sara would soon conceive and have a boy. The Torah tells that when Sara heard the news, she "laughed" and asked, "Will I be refreshed after having withered?" (18:12). It seems that Sara doubted the prophecy, noting that she was already an elderly woman and thus incapable of conceiving. G-d then asked Abraham why Sara laughed, and the Torah writes, "She said, ‘I did not laugh,’ because she was afraid" (18:15).
This story seems, at first glance, very difficult to understand. Would a righteous woman like Sara doubt G-d’s capabilities? Did she not believe that G-d could grant her a child at any age? And how could she deny that she laughed?
The Gemara in Masechet Ta’anit teaches, "En Ha’beracha Mesuya Ela Be’dabar Ha’samui Min Ha’ayin" – "Blessing is found only in something concealed from view." This means that if we want to retain the blessings in our lives, we must avoid flaunting them. Putting our blessings on display, and thereby arousing jealousy and ill will, can cause real damage. In order to enjoy blessings, we must keep a low profile and avoid making them public.
This is why Sara reacted as she did to the news that she would be bearing a child. Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel writes that Yishmael, Abraham’s son from Sara’s maidservant, Hagar, was standing outside listening to the conversation. Yishmael certainly did not want a brother who would threaten his status, and thus Yishmael’s hearing the news of Sara’s imminent conception could have created an "Ayin Ha’ra" ("evil eye") against her. Knowing that Yishmael was listening, Sara downplayed the angels’ announcement, saying that she could never bear a child at her advanced age. She herself never doubted the prophecy for a moment. However, in order to avoid the "Ayin Ha’ra," she outwardly dismissed it, so that Yishmael would not feel envious.
G-d, however, responded to Sara by noting that this was unnecessary. Whereas generally one should, indeed, downplay and keep silent about one’s success and good fortune, in this instance, when an explicit prophecy was given, there was no concern at all. An "Ayin Ha’ra" cannot adversely affect a promise made by G-d as conveyed through a prophet. Sara said that she "laughed" because she was afraid of the "Ayin Ha’ra," but G-d responded that such fears are unwarranted in the case of an explicit prophecy of good fortune.
Rav Shimshon of Astropoli (1600-1648) records a tradition taught by Rav Huna, one of the Talmudic Sages, that one can avoid the "Ayin Ha’ra" through one of the lesser-known Names of G-d, a Name which is spelled with the three letters "Heh," "Alef," Alef." These are the first letters of the words "Eshtahaveh El Hechal" in the verse we recite when we enter the synagogue: "Va’ani Be’rob Hasdecha Abo Betecha Eshtahaveh El Hechal Kadshecha Be’yir’atecha." Indeed, it is customary to sing this verse at a Huppa, in order to negate the possible effects of the "Ayin Ha’ra." A wedding is a time when a family celebrates their good fortune in public fashion, and this could potentially expose the family to an evil eye. The verse, "Va’ani Be’rob Hasdecha" is therefore sung to negate this effect.
When Sara expressed doubts regarding the prophecy of her conception, she said, "Ha’af Umnam Eled" ("Could it actually be that I will give birth?" – 18:13). The first letters of these words are "Heh," "Alef," Alef." Sara said these words despite believing wholeheartedly that she would bear a child, in order to negate the effects of the "Ayin Ha’ra."
There are two practical lessons for us to learn from this analysis. Firstly, of course, we learn of the importance of humility and discretion when it comes to the blessings in our lives. Although we should enjoy our families and material gifts, we must avoid flaunting them and making public displays of our success. This arouses other people’s resentment and thus exposes us to the "Ayin Ha’ra." At the same time, this reminds us to avoid creating an "Ayin Ha’ra" through feelings of jealousy. We must train ourselves to celebrate and rejoice over the successes of our peers, rather than feel jealous. True "Ahabat Yisrael" – love for our fellow Jews – requires feeling joy when another joy feels joy. If we react to other people’s good fortune with genuine happiness, then we help ourselves by experiencing positive feelings, and help others avoid the negative effects of the evil eye.