How much do you care about what other people think of you?
On one level, it is natural and healthy to want the approval of others. If someone doesn’t care at all what others think of him, he may do things that are harmful or immoral to others and end up being isolated from social groups, which itself is not healthy. Yet, the desire to be liked by others can easily become unhealthy. People who have a high need to gain approval from others determinedly seek admiration, sometimes at a high cost to their own goals. They tend to have higher anxiety and depression, as well as lower self-esteem (that is contingent on how they think other people think of them).
The Talmud (Berachot 20a) relates that Yosef and his descendants are immune from the destructive power of the evil eye. Before we understand why they are immune, first we need to better understand this mysterious and controversial concept. Broadly speaking, as it is presented in the Talmud, when Person A looks upon Person B (or their material goods) with envy or jealousy, that act of looking can cause actual damage to Person B. There have been several explanations of this concept throughout the ages, including (subsequently disproven) scientific explanations of the ability for the eye to emit a dangerous vapor or fire, and a theological proposal that the negative emotions provoke God to be extra meticulous towards Person B (which has its own set of controversial ramifications). Those who view the evil eye as a supernatural phenomenon either try not to draw too much attention to themselves or use various mystical procedures to try and counteract it.
Others, however, provide a more rationalist, psychological explanation of the concept. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, for instance, understands the evil eye as general social influence. We can be easily swayed by other people’s beliefs, opinions, and practices and ayin hara is the term used to indicate being negatively impacted by others (see Ein Ayah on Berachot, p. 102). Someone who has self-confidence and is sure that they are doing what is right in the eyes of God, won’t be swayed by the negative influence of others, and is therefore immune to the evil eye.
Similarly, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik assumes that ayin hara is representative of the negative social dynamics between two people. When Person A disagrees, criticizes, or opposes Person B, Person A is putting an ayin hara on Person B. If Person B’s sense of self is too intertwined with what other people think of him, then when Person A does anything to indicate that he doesn’t approve of Person B, Person B will be devastated. However, if Person B has a developed sense of self that is independent and does not desperately need the approval of others, then he would be immune to the ayin hara of others.
Taking a similar rational approach, Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein argues that the reason Yosef was immune to ayin hara was because he was self-confident and not swayed by the opinions or negative influences of others. For instance, he told his brothers about his dreams even though it would lead them to not liking him. He resists the solicitation from the wife of Potifar because it was morally and spiritually wrong. Additionally, when Pharaoh tells Yosef that he has heard that he can interpret dreams, Yosef brazenly corrects Pharaoh’s mistake in public, saying that it is God Who interprets the dreams. The running theme is that Yosef will say and do what he is sure God wants him to do, despite social pressure to do the opposite. This is what it means to be above the ayin hara.
From this perspective, we can all be immune to the ayin hara. When others try to use peer pressure to sway us from doing what is right in the eyes of God, we can stay firm and strong, and confidently resist the strong pull to seek their approval.