This week's parsha opens with an interesting, but puzzling, statement. The L-rd instructs Moshe that when he takes the census of the Israelites, they must be numbered indirectly: every man will give half a shekel, and the money thus collected will be counted. This is so that no plague will break out among them (Exod. 30: 11-13).
Rashi explains that the plague would come from the "ayin hora" (evil eye) which would result from a direct count of the Israel- ites.
In general, we are supposed to avoid counting things publicly, to avoid the evil eye in counting our wealth, for example, or in counting a minyan.
Here, however, this rule seems puzzling. If the "ayin hora" results from some evil spirit, why should the Jews be worried about it in this case? For G-d is the ultimate power in the Universe, and it is He who commanded the census in the first place, and he could (presumably) stop any such evil spirit if He wanted to. If we think of the "ayin hora" as a superstition, then this passage (or Rashi's explanation) becomes even more puz- zling.
The answer, I think, comes from an extremely simple explanation of the idea of the "ayin hora", which we can learn from the writings of the Maharal. It derives from the basic principle that any prayer that one ever makes to G-d must be answered! (It may not be answered in the way we intend, but that's another matter.) This includes spontaneous prayers that you may make in the subway, or in your office. (Incidentally, according to the Ramban, you are fulfilling a positive mitzva every time you make such a prayer!) But it also includes prayers made by your neshama, or "unconscious prayers". Now suppose someone shows off his good fortune to us. Although we may not wish him any harm -- and might be shocked at such a suggestion -- we may find ourselves thinking, in spite of ourselves: "Why should he have such a good income, or such a nice car (or whatever)? He's no better than I am!" And that may count as an unconscious prayer against this person's success, which will be answered, in one way or another!
According to the Gemara there are only two situations in which there is no such danger: the reaction of a father to his child's success, and that of a rabbi to his student's progress. In these two cases (only), the reaction is one of unalloyed pleasure. In all other cases of being confronted with someone's success, there may be a component of resentment or envy, leading to the "ayin hora".
How ironic -- we may work and work to get our picture on the cov- er of "Time", and when we succeed, only one person will get pleasure out of it -- our mother! The reaction of many other people might be prayers, of a kind we would not like!
The Gemara also makes the point that the most successful people are those who deal in small items, like jewelry, which can be hidden, and need not be displayed prominently so as to arouse envy.
Interestingly, later on in this week's parsha, when Moshe was to go up Mount Sinai after the incident of the Golden Calf, to re- ceive the Ten Commandments a second time, he is commanded to go alone: "No man shall go up with you" (34:3). Rashi explains: The first tablets were given amidst tumult and thundering and assem- blies, which resulted in the evil eye from the nations of the world! So this time it was going to be a much more low-keyed af- fair. As Rashi says: "There is nothing more beautiful than modesty."
What lesson can we draw from all this? The power of prayer! If all prayers must be answered, even ignoble prayers, how much more will prayers be answered which are in accordance with G-d's wishes -- prayers for the welfare of others, or for our own spir- itual growth.