A number of years ago, shortly before I was scheduled to travel, I remembered that my passport had expired. When I called to make an appointment for an expedited renewal, the woman offered me a date that I quickly realized coincided with Shavuos. I told the woman I couldn’t come then because it was a Jewish holiday. She asked me to wait a and when she returned informed me that she checked with a “very Jewish” co-worker who said there is no Jewish holiday on that date and that neither she nor he have ever heard of Shavuos.
Of all of the Jewish holidays, Shavuos is probably the least well-known and definitely the least observed among the Jewish community. This is particularly sad in light of the theme of Shavuos, namely the camaraderie, kinship, and bond our people forged as we received the Torah that unites us together as one. Shavuos should be a time that we re-connect, re-bond, and remember the fraternal nature of being a Jew.
Rosh Hashana, Chanukah, and Pesach are very public holidays that are often noted even in the non-Jewish world. Companies take out ads with holiday greetings to the Jewish community, television newscasts wish happy holidays to their Jewish viewers, and Presidents release holiday messages directed at the Jewish people. Shavuos is an orphan holiday with our own people barely taking notice, let alone the world. If only it weren’t such a well-kept secret and more widely celebrated and observed.
And yet, there is an aspect of the privacy and secrecy of Shavuos that is completely appropriate. On Shavuos, we commemorate the experience of receiving the luchos, the tablets at Har Sinai, and with them the whole Torah. However, the luchos that were to last, the ones that survived and endured, were not the original set that Hashem gave to Moshe publicly. Rather, the luchos that remained intact and that protected our people at war were the ones that Hashem gave Moshe privately at a later time.
The Midrash tells us that this is not a coincidence but, in fact, is a reflection of a broader principle. The Tanchuma teaches that because the first set of luchos were gifted at a very public ceremony with pomp and circumstance and the world watching, they were susceptible to ayin harah, the jealousy, envy, and ill wishes of others. The second set, given privately in an understated, under-the-radar-manner, endured. They were protected from the negative aspirations of some who would be watching.
What is ayin harah and how does it work? Shouldn’t what happens to us in life correlate with our personal merits and not to some extraneous force that comes from jealousy?
Ayin harah is not a kabbalistic, mystical, or irrational concept. When we boast openly, carry on ostentatiously, brag showily, or even simply celebrate our success publicly, we invite others to look jealously upon us and to wonder why we deserve good fortune when they don’t have it.
The Maharal explains, that this curiosity, this wonder, and the question that others have when they observe our good fortune is a type of prayer, intended or unintended, that elicits God to wonder as well. God hears the pain of the one who is lacking and has our good fortune cast in his or her face and He reacts by taking a closer look at whether or not in fact we deserve the blessing we are boasting in the first place.
Perhaps it is with the force of ayin harah in mind that the Gemara (Bava Metzia 42) observes: Amar Rebbe Yitzchak, ein ha’beracha metzuya elah b’davar ha’samuy min ha’ayin – Blessing is not found except in something that is hidden from the eye.
The force of ayin harah is stronger today than ever because we have more platforms to talk, show, and share than ever. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and to a certain extent even text messages and email are all designed to entice us to share pictures, spread information, and boast about things going on in our lives.
Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with sharing and connecting with family and friends using these mediums. However, we must be extremely judicious and cautious with what and how we share publicly, and what remains protected by the veil of privacy. Not every picture needs to be posted. Not every stock market success needs to be flaunted. Not every intimate experience needs to be shared, online or offline.
Ein ha’beracha metzuya b’davar ha’samuy min ha’ayin. Showing off about a vacation we took, how smart or adorable our children or grandchildren are, which famous person we met, or what we just bought, invites others to place their jealous and prosecuting eyes upon us. I am not calling for a blanket ban on sharing, but simply calling for us to struggle a little more with what, how, why and where we share.
How do you protect yourself from ayin harah? You can’t tie a red string around your Facebook profile and even if you could, it wouldn’t help whatsoever. Says Rav Dessler, the antidote to ayin harah is simple – be modest, humble, understated, low-key, inconspicuous, and unassuming. Preserve your capacity for privacy. If something good happens to you, be happy and even be proud. Share it with trusted family members or friends, but keep it samuy min ha’ayin, under the radar, not posted, shared, linked, and texted everywhere and for all to see. Use social media to connect, never to self-promote.
Last year, CNN had an article about a Prep School headmaster whose contract wasn’t renewed. He had sued his former employer for age discrimination and won a settlement of $80,000. The agreement contained a standard confidentiality clause, prohibiting him or the school from talking about the case.
However, his daughter couldn’t resist bragging about the case on Facebook. “Mama and Papa won the case against Gulliver,” she wrote. “Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer.” She had over 1,000 Facebook friends, many of whom were connected with Gulliver and so news of the post made its way back to the school’s lawyers. After they appealed the verdict, the Third District Court of Appeal tossed out the $80,000 settlement. Not keeping their beracha samuy min ha’ayin cost her family a lot of money.
As we celebrate Shavuos and commemorate the giving of the luchos, let’s remember that those that were accompanied by pomp and circumstance quickly came crashing to the ground, while the tablets that were given privately persevered and endured.
Reprinted with the permission of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg.