By now, people have stopped asking how many children we have. (Our youngest child is seventeen.) Now they ask how many grandchildren we have. I know they’re just making conversation, indulging their curiosity about what number we’re up to, but the question is awkward because I don’t want to answer it.
First of all, I’m always hopeful that the number will increase, that more will be “on the way.” But that’s not the real reason why I don’t count. The real reason is that Jews don’t count people, because counting can arouse the ayin hara, the evil eye.
This isn’t bubbe maaiseh, grandma stuff. It’s Biblical stuff, all derived from the way G-d told Moses to count the Jewish people in a census. There’s lots of spirituality embedded in the census details –the preciousness of every individual Jew, the elevation achieved when these individuals join together–but I just want to know what to do to keep the people I love out of harm’s way. I don’t care how strange it sounds to count my guests at the table by saying, “not one, not two, not three…” so that I’m not actually counting anybody. I’m more concerned about avoiding ayin hara than about sounding conventional.
Didn’t everyone’s grandmother say “kenahora” when saying something nice about someone, especially a grandchild? When I became observant, all my new religious friends were always saying some variation of it, too. (“Kenahora” is a slurred version of Kein Ayin Hara; Kein is Yiddish for “no,” ayin is Hebrew for “eye,” and hara is Hebrew for “evil.”) Of course, some were careful to add pu pu pu, the sound of spitting in disgust. You can be sure that one of the first questions I asked the rabbis was about ayin hara and if these incantations actually work.
According to the Talmud, ayin hara definitely exists but it leaves us alone if we don’t worry about it. Still, who can afford to take chances? Jealousy may be invisible, but we all know that it’s real. And really ugly. Growing up, I had no understanding of where my jealousy originated (when Adam and Eve internalized evil back in the Garden of Eden) and had no tools to manage it. The green-eyed monster in the room tortured me.
My years of working to establish my own meaningful relationship with G-d has lessened my preoccupation with what He does for others. Jealous thoughts still knock on my mind’s door, but I let them in much less frequently (kenahora, pu pu pu). I understand now how G-d created jealousy to serve a holy purpose. The desire to outperform others helps us fulfill G-d’s purpose for all of creation–to make this world a dwelling place for Him through learning Torah and doing mitzvos.
But we need to let G-d know that it’s enough already, that it’s time to bring Moshiach. If you think you don’t need him because you’re truly happy the way you are, sit with yourself the next time you have a jealous thought and focus on how ugly it makes you feel. This works for me every time. That’s when I know I need Moshiach–to redeem me from myself. Because until he comes, I don’t really know that everyone is part of G-d’s Oneness, and I suffer for it.
In the meantime, what matters most is how we act. When our actions affirm that every Jew is part of G-d’s Oneness, we protect ourselves from the power of ayin hara, both individually and globally. (Saying variations of “kenahora” helps, too.)
This is our ammunition to win the day-to-day battles. To win the war, we need to beseech G-d to change the essential nature of the world, to eradicate jealousy from all of our hearts by bringing Moshiach, who will enable everyone to know this Oneness, once and for all.
The holiday of Chanukah infuses us all with extra strength to succeed in doing it.