Vayechi: On Evil Eyes and Rotten Bones

Joseph’s last will and testament (Genesis 50:24-26), like that of his father’s before him, contains the message of redemption as well as an oath binding his descendents to bury him in the land of Israel.  Yet, whereas Jacob said, “carry me out of Egypt”, Joseph said, “carry up my bones out of here.”  It is my contention that the term “bones” is deliberate and not merely a reference to his inevitable decomposition.  What, then, is the significance of Joseph’s “bones”?

On the blessing: “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain (alei ayin) …” (Gen. 49:22) the Talmud teaches, “Do not read ‘by a fountain (alei ayin)’ but rather ‘above the eye’ (olei ayin) … Joseph’s descendants are above the power of the eye”.  This power of the eye, also known as the evil eye, refers to the character trait of jealousy.  Yet, strange though this may sound, the Talmud here emphasizes not that Joseph was above jealousy (true though that may be), but rather that the jealousies of others had no effect on him.

Now, while there is a school of thought that holds this power to operate on a mystical plane, Rabbi Kook understands the “evil-eye” in rational terms.  He explains that it is part of the human condition for people to be influenced by one another; however, if one is cognizant of his self-worth and committed to his own self-actualization, then he will not be affected by external influences.  Being susceptible to jealousy is simply a reflection of one’s own jealousy.

To remove oneself from the cycle of jealousies, Rabbi Yaakov Bar Shimshon (Avot 2:11) advises:  In the way that a man views his wife, his children and his house [with no taint of jealousy], so should he view his friend’s home; for anyone who looks upon his friend’s money with an evil eye, loses his possessions and even himself, as it says: “a broken spirit dries the bones” (Proverbs 17:22) and “jealousy rots the bones” (14:30).

And this brings us back to “Joseph’s bones”.  Rabbi Frand understands the relationship between “jealousy” and “bones” as follows:

“A person who is jealous is fundamentally unhappy with who he is.  He would much rather be someone else.  He is unhappy with his wife.  He is unhappy with his family.  He is unhappy with his job.  He is unhappy with his position.  He wants to be someone else.  He rejects who he is, his atzmius, his very essence.  Therefore, he loses his atzamos, his bones, to decomposition.”

Bones, at the core of one’s being and responsible for one’s ability to stand on his own, are taken here to be symbolic of one’s self-worth and inner conviction, one’s ability to stand tall, happy with one’s portion.  Rotten bones, then, symbolize a lack of self-worth and inner conviction that expresses itself in jealousy.

Reviewing the story of Joseph it can be seen that – from playground to plantation, from prison to palace – he has not a jealous bone in his body.  Could it be that Joseph, paragon of confidence and conviction, who bore no jealousies, is sending his last will and testament to the nation in the form of his bones?  Could it be that Joseph is saying, “Jealousy rots the bones” so “carry up my bones,” my wholly intact bones, that they may serve as an ever present reminder that the nation must be free of jealousy, for jealousy rots the nation?

The chronicle of Joseph’s bones till their final interment in the land of Israel provides the answer.  Following his being “placed in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26) we next read of his bones at the Exodus, “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had solemnly sworn the children of Israel, saying: God will surely remember you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you” (Exodus 13:19).  For the redeemer of the people to busy himself with these bones at the birth of the nation surely indicates that they are of great import, indeed, of national import.

The Talmud (Sotah 13a) tells of how Joseph’s coffin (aron) was transported, side by side, with the chest (aron) carrying the Ten Commandments.  When passersby would note in bewilderment that a coffin was being carried alongside the chest of the Ten Commandments, upon which God’s very presence rested, they were told, “the one in this chest fulfilled everything that is written in this chest.”  In what way did Joseph fulfill all the commandments?

At the foundation of the commandments lies the proscription against jealousy: “Thou shalt not covet” (Ex. 20:14).  Recanati (ad loc.), in explaining the significance of this tenth commandment, brings the words of the sages who teach that the Ten Commandments were sealed with “thou shalt not covet” because “all the commandments are included in it.”  The fulfillment of all the commandments is predicated on being free of all covetous jealousies.

Joseph’s bones are the tangible symbol of this ideal, of fulfilling all the commandments by being above jealousy, above the “evil eye”.  The Talmud (Berachot 20a) teaches that, for he whose “eye did not desire to imbibe from that which was not his, the evil eye has not power over him.”  This, explains Rashi, refers to none other than Joseph who refrained from “enjoying his master’s wife”, who did not covet his master’s wife.  Just as Joseph did not exhibit the evil eye, was not jealous, so the jealousy of others, their evil eye, had no influence over him.  Being susceptible to jealousy is simply a reflection of one’s own jealousy.

Now Joseph’s attainment, while certainly of personal significance, is ultimately of national importance.  The story of Joseph’s bones ends with their interment in Shechem, “And Joseph’s bones which the children of Israel carried up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem” (Joshua 24:32) at the conclusion to the conquest of the land of Israel.  Just as the commandments are “sealed” with the proscription against jealousy, so the newly founded nation is “sealed” with the same message in the burial of Joseph’s bones.  Joseph’s bones (atzamot), linked as they are to the birth of the nation, to the founding of the nation, indeed to the independence (atzmaut) of the nation, send the message that the nation must eschew all jealousies.

The Talmud (Sotah 13b) notes that “from Shechem they stole him and to Shechem they returned him.”  The story is brought full circle.  Joseph was stolen from Shechem due to the jealousy of the brothers which resulted in the great Egyptian exile.  As a remedy, the exile was decreed with the explicit goal of making a great nation – a nation that would be free of jealousy.  For a nation – even with all the commandments to guide it – will tear itself apart if driven by jealousy.

Joseph is returned from whence he was removed.  The jealousy that prevented Jacob’s family from becoming a great nation was overturned.  The typical jealousies that were rife in the book of Genesis are practically absent during the entire Egyptian sojourn and onward.  Exemplary of this new ideal are Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menasheh, who exhibit no animosity when Jacob favors the younger over the elder.[1]  Joseph succeeded in instilling his “power over the eye” in the family – but what of the nation?

God promised Jacob in the vision of the night, “I will bring up [the children of Israel] and Joseph will cover your eyes” (Gen. 46:4).  The redemption of the children of Israel is directly related to Joseph covering Jacob’s eyes – to Joseph removing the evil eye started by the favoritism of Jacob.[2]  In so doing, Joseph began the transformation of the family of Jacob into the nation of Israel.  But God also told Jacob in that dark vision, “fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation” (46:3).  The “power over the eye” that Joseph impressed in the family still needed to be forged into the national conscience through the iron furnace of Egypt.  Only then could God “bring up the children of Israel”, unified, as “the great nation.”


[1] Might the tradition to bless one’s boys to be like Ephraim and Menasheh be based on their ability to receive blessings without jealousy?

[2] Could it be that the “hamsa” hand used as an amulet against the evil eye would be better understood as a reminder of Joseph’s hand that covered the evil eye generated by Jacob’s favoritism?

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at