A red string. Michael Jackson had one. Madonna and Britney have one. So do Kurt Russell, Rosie O’Donnell, David and Victoria Beckham, Mick Jagger, and many more (including Demi Moore).
Justin Bieber does not have one. Yet.
It’s a hot fashion statement – popular among the trendy Hollywood crowd and Eastern European Jewish grandmothers.
How’s that for a trivia question: What do Madonna, David Beckham, and your Bubby (Grandma) have in common?
Worn around the left wrist, the red string is meant somehow to ward off the “evil eye” and invoke G-d’s protection. (Your Bubby might call the evil eye a “keynihara.” She may also say “pooh pooh pooh” and make some strange guttural noises trying to deflect it.)
But is the whole idea of the “evil eye” a Jewish concept – or is it some form of ancient voodoo or superstition?
Short answer: It is very Jewish indeed. In fact, Jewish tradition tells us that the evil eye, known in Hebrew as “ayin hara,” is a powerful force of destruction that has the potential to obliterate health, wealth, and happiness. (See, for example, Talmud Avos 2:11 and Bava Metzia 107b.)
No wonder so many are wearing red strings.
However, like many other esoteric Jewish concepts, the idea of the “evil eye” is terribly misunderstood. Based on the description above, the “evil eye” may bring to mind the Dementors from the Harry Potter series – when in reality it is meant to convey a profound spiritual truth.
Many segments of society today seem to be living embodiments of the motto “If you’ve got it flaunt it.” The Torah view is diametrically opposed – the Sages note that “A blessing is only found among things hidden from the eye,” and “There is nothing more beautiful than modesty.” In other words, the Jewish view is “If you’ve got it DON’T flaunt it” – not your money, your possessions, or your body.
Some examples: Do we really need to be posting (and, of course, Tweeting) the details of our lives, from the mundane to the intimate, on Facebook? Is imitating the celebrity dress code really what is best for the emotional, physical, and spiritual health of our pre-teen and teenage children (and adults too)? Do we purchase a car based on cost and quality, or as a status symbol to impress the neighbor (or girl) down the block; or worse, not to embarrass our children by picking them up in a car that is (gasp!) more than a year or two old?
This idea manifests itself twice in this week’s parsha. In the beginning of the Torah portion we are told that the proper way to count the Jewish people is by having each person donate an equal coin to charity and subsequently counting the donated coins. This way, no individual stands out on his own, but rather is counted as one component, all of which together contribute to the good of the community.
Later we are told that the first set of tablets, given to Moses by G-d himself with great publicity and spectacle, didn’t last very long. The second set of tablets, which had none of the fanfare, is what endured.
It is important to point out that by no means does this imply that we must hide our talents, live in the simplest of homes, dress in burqas, and live lives of mediocrity. G-d has blessed every human being with unique skills and gifts and we are commanded to use them to their fullest. This is not a contradiction to a life of modesty; indeed the human being who reached the greatest heights (Moses) was also the most humble who ever lived.
Here is the paradox: Flaunting our G-d-given talents brings on the “evil eye” and its destructive power, while using our gifts discreetly allows us to enjoy them to the fullest.
It really is wonderful that the Material Girl and her celebrity friends seek to get in touch with their spiritual sides. Sadly, however, the red string will not do them, or any of us, any good – only living humbly and modestly can bring G-d’s protection. When we live our lives with humility, the “evil eye” has no power over us at all; in fact the Torah tells us even our greatest adversaries will be forced to shower us with blessings.
And that is something no red string can achieve.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in away that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.