Yaakov, facing impending death, gathers his children around him to bless them. To his most beloved and most unique son, Yosef, Yaakov grants a rather unusual blessing. Upon Yosef’s children, Yaakov bestows the blessing (BeReishit 48:16)“VaYidgu LaRov BaKever HaAretz,” “They will become plentiful (like fish) amidst the land.” The word chosen, “VaYidgu,” finds its roots in the Hebrew word Dag, fish. This raises the question: what connection could there be between Yosef and fish?
Many commentators, based on the Gemara (Berachot 55b), explain that fish have a very unique quality among the world’s creatures. Fish are submerged in water, and therefore, are immune to the Ayin HaRa, evil eye. So too, Yosef is immune to the evil eye. While this begins to answer our question, much remains to be explained. How do we define the evil eye in practical terms? Moreover, what unique trait of fish grants them this immunity to the evil eye’s effects? Within these answers lies the greater message to be learned from Yaakov’s blessing.
Although many suggest a literal understanding of an evil force manifested through sight, a powerful metaphorical meaning can be extracted. “Giving someone the evil eye” is a common saying in modern culture, connoting a look that causes one to feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and out of place. This saying can be dated back to the true meaning of an evil eye. It is an opposing force that attempts to change and manipulate others into conforming into someone else’s image of acceptability; foreign eyes of disapproval attempting to intimidate the target into changing their methods, philosophy, and very being to conform.
Now that we understand what this evil eye means, one must ask why fish, and thereby Yosef, are immune to it. The evil eye, an intimidation tactic, required the target’s participation. Fish live in a completely isolated plane of existence underwater, completely oblivious to the feelings and opinions of those on land. It is this inability to allow themselves to be targeted that grants them this immunity to the evil eye. This is akin to Yosef, who, after being uprooted from his home and thrown into the new and (seemingly) Godless world of the Egyptians, is still able to thrive. Yosef exists in a separate spiritually cognizant plane, and is thereby immune to the negative feelings of the Egyptians around him. It is this spiritual devotion that enabled him to thrive in Egypt, rising to power, and it is this merit that spurs Yaakov’s blessing. Furthermore, once in power and surrounded by materialism and power, Yosef never caved in to the expecting materialistic eyes of his followers. In fact, the Torah specifically mentions that Yosef gave Paroh much wealth from selling food during the famine, but never took anything extra for himself. Yosef is able to ignore the expectations of others, the evil eye of the Egyptians, and continue to exist in a spiritual plane.
This message is especially relevant to Jews in the modern world. We exist in an overpopulated, materialistic plane, continually slipping further into the existentialist abyss of Godlessness. It is crucial we learn from Yosef and this positive quality that Yaakov highlighted. We must retain our spirituality, continuing to exist and thrive in a plane of Judaic spirituality, refusing to bend to the pressures of the secular world. Moreover, as we see from Yosef, this hardly means we should live in “bubble” societies, closing ourselves off from the other world to retain a purely Jewish existence. Yosef is able to thrive and rise to power in Egypt while still retaining his spirituality, and we must do the same. Because of Yosef’s organizational system, people from all over were able to buy food in a time of famine. Yosef managed to help many lives through his success. We must learn from this admirable and exemplary feat and, not only continue to flourish and exist in the spiritual world, but flourish and contribute in the secular world, in spite of the pressure of others. Hopefully, through this lesson we can grow spiritually, while growing and helping others in the world like Yosef does, fulfilling our commandment of Tikun Olam, fixing the world and restoring it to the necessary perfection to usher in the Messianic period.