The Torah in Parashat Vayechi tells of Yaakov’s famous blessing to Yosef’s sons, which concludes with the wish, “ve-yidgu la-rov” (48:16). This is commonly understood as a blessing of fertility, that Yosef’s descendants should procreate like fish. The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Berakhot (20a), interpreted this analogy to mean that Yosef’s descendants would be protected from the “ayin ha-ra” (“evil eye”). Just as fish live underwater, out of the sight of human beings, and are thus shielded from “ayin ha-ra,” Yosef’s descendants similarly enjoy this protection. The Gemara then proceeds to give another reason why Yosef’s descendants are not exposed to the dangers of the “ayin ha-ra,” commenting, “The eye which did not wish to take part of that which did not belong to it – the evil eye exerts no control over it.” Yosef’s “eye” refused to be tempted by Potifar’s wife, and thus his offspring is protected from the “evil eye.”
The concept of “ayin ha-ra” has often been understood as referring to the negative effects of the feelings of resentment and envy that are aroused when one flaunts his success. Public displays of affluence and other forms of good fortune evoke jealousy and contempt on the part of the less fortunate, and these feelings can have a negative effect on the person whose success is on display. This explains the Gemara’s comment linking Yaakov’s blessing of “ve-yidgu la-rov” and protection from “ayin ha-ra.” If we want to avoid the harmful effects of the “evil eye,” of envy and resentment, then we should live as “fish,” by keeping our good fortune out of the public view, just as the fish conduct their affairs underwater and are not seen by other creatures.
It seems, however, that this is not the only necessary measure to avoid the “ayin ha-ra.” As mentioned, the Gemara adds, “The eye which did not wish to take part of that which did not belong to it – the evil eye exerts no control over it.” Significantly, the Gemara does not point to Yosef’s self-control and discipline. Rather, it notes the fact that he did not look upon that which was not his. Yosef was content with the power and authority that Potifar had given him, and did not desire anything more. Apparently, the Gemara viewed a sense of contentment as a vital component for protecting oneself from the “ayin ha-ra.” In addition to living like “fish,” privately and discreetly, without seeking publicity and notoriety, we are also advised to live contentedly, without constantly pursuing that which we do not yet have. Just as we are to avoid the curious eyes of others, by keeping our good fortune private, we must likewise keep our eyes away from others and their belongings. This, too, helps us avoid the resentment and negative feelings of other people, who will see that we live at peace with ourselves and are not peering into the lives of others to see what they have and we don’t.