God 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 Israelites.
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? 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!
I heard in the name of the Maharal an extremely simple explanation of the idea of the “ayin hora”. Every prayer to G-d must be answered! (albeit that it may not be answered in the way we intend) Whether the prayer is formal, spontaneous, a prayer of your neshama or even unconscious.
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 while I’m struggling to stay afloat. He is, after all, no better than I am!” That thought may count as an unconscious prayer against this person’s success, which will be answered, in one way or another!
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. Only in these two cases, 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”.
The Talmud 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.
Even when Moshe was to go up Mount Sinai after the incident of the Golden Calf, to receive 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 assemblies, 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 affair. As Rashi says: “There is nothing more beautiful than modesty.”
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 spiritual growth.