The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (84a) relates that Rabbi Yochanan did not fear the ayin ha-ra (“evil eye”) because he descended from Yosef, and the ayin ha-ra had no power over Yosef’s offspring. Two verses from Parashat Vayechi are cited as the source for this concept. The first is Yaakov’s famous blessing to Yosef’s children, Menashe and Efrayim, which concludes, “ve-yidgu la-rov be-kerev ha-aretz” – “they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the land” (48:16). The Gemara comments, “Just as the fish in the sea are covered by water, such that the [evil] eye does not control them, Yosef’s offspring, too, is not controlled by the [evil] eye.” The other source cited by the Gemara is Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef (49:22) describing him as a “fruitful son” who is “alei ayin,” which the Gemara explains to mean “transcends the [evil] eye.”
This unique quality of Yosef becomes particularly striking in light of the Midrash’s interpretation of Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef. After describing Yosef as a “ben porat alei ayin,” Yaakov proceeds to speak about young women who “marched upon the wall,” which the Midrash, as Rashi cites in his Torah commentary, explains as referring to the day Yosef was named the Egyptian vizier. As he was marched through the city streets, the Midrash relates, the women would rush to gaze upon him, enchanted by his handsome appearance. Yosef was somebody who attracted attention and drew interest. Both his appearance and his achievements were impressive and elicited admiration, and he was somebody whom everybody wanted to look at.
In this sense, Yosef was the diametric opposite of the “fish in the sea” mentioned by the Gemara. The fish are protected by the ayin ha-ra because they are out of human sight. They reside in an entirely separate domain, and thus they do not catch any attention, present any sort competition, or draw any resentment. They are the model of those who keep a “low profile,” who don’t seek publicity or pursue the spotlight, and are thus safe from the hostility of jealous competitors and the scrutiny to which public figures are so often subject. Nobody was as different from the “fish in the sea” than Yosef. He naturally drew attention to himself, and was somebody whom everybody wanted to see. By nature, he was in the spotlight. Even when Potifar’s wife tried to send him “into the sea,” into an Egyptian dungeon away from society, he emerged as the world’s second most powerful person.
As a youngster in his father’s home, this quality of Yosef aroused the jealousy and resentment of his peers. As a slave in Potifar’s home, too, he made a point of making himself attractive, thus arousing the interest of Potifar’s wife (Rashi, 39:6). However, when rose to glory in Egypt, he managed to escape the natural effects of the ayin ha-ra. As a public figure in Egypt, he succeeded in avoiding conflict and tension. Indeed, at the end of Parashat Vayigash, the Torah describes how he managed the economy of Egypt during the drought years and earned the full trust and cooperation of the citizenry. By the time he was released from the dungeon and brought before Pharaoh, he had learned how to avoid the ayin ha-ra even while living out of the “sea,” in the public eye.
The Gemara’s comment, then, teaches us that one does not have to live “underwater” to avoid the effects of the ayin ha-ra. Yosef is the model of an accomplished public servant who earns respect and admiration without arousing resentment and jealousy. He shows that with discretion and genuine humility, one can rise to prominence while still avoiding the natural effects of the ayin ha-ra – the hostility of jealous competitors and the public.