G‑d created Adam and Eve unclothed, and they walked around the Garden of Eden . . . naked. If public nudity was fine with G‑d, why does the Torah tell us to be modest, to cover up, to subdue our natural allure? What changed?

It all started after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before, they were not aware of their nakedness;1 they even “engaged in intercourse before everyone’s eyes”!2 But once they ate from that tree, their perspective shifted. The whole universe shifted.

Before, good The whole universe shiftedwas obviously good and evil was obviously bad. But afterward it was a different world, one in which holiness and impurity became intermingled. In our post–Tree of Knowledge world, everything good has some bad within it, and even the worst evil has some good. In fact, the holier something is, the more susceptible it is to corruption. Potent, holy energy is often siphoned off by the forces of unholiness.

Before eating from the tree, Adam and Eve weren’t embarrassed of their nakedness, because they perceived that sexuality was good and natural and holy. Intercourse was an activity created by G‑d for unity and procreation. After they shifted into the world of good and evil, they immediately felt the need to protect their sexuality. In fact, since sexuality was so holy, it would be more vulnerable to corruption. It was on evil’s radar—big time!

Sexuality is a way we connect with our soulmate and with G‑d, and pleasure is the outgrowth of that connection. But the forces of evil make us believe that that sexuality is all about our personal pleasure. So Adam and Eve instinctively became a bit selfish, and then they were embarrassed of themselves. They put on clothes so that their sexual aura wouldn’t be vulnerable to misuse. Ever since, humans have put on clothing.3

There is a story in the Torah about a child who was protective of his mother’s beauty, ensuring that no man but his father benefited from it. That little boy was Joseph. Let’s begin the story from the end . . .

When Jacob was lying on his deathbed, he blessed all of his sons individually. Among the things he said to Joseph were these unusual words: “A charming son is Joseph, a son charming to the eye. Women strode along to see him.”4

Now, this seems like a fairly shallow blessing. Was Jacob simply focused on Joseph’s good looks? Was this the final synopsis of Joseph’s good qualities? What type of meaningful message did these words impart?

Let’s unpack the verse:

בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף
Ben porat Yosef
A charming son is Joseph

בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן
ben porat alei ayin
a son charming to the eye

בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר
banot tza’adah alei shur
women, [each one] strode along to see him

Rashi says that the Hebrew word for “charming,” porat, also means “to be fruitful5 and to grow.” So with the one word porat, Jacob was saying two things to Joseph: “You are charming, and you have grown.” Jacob’s blessing continues, “alei ayin,” which is translated to mean “[charming] to the eye.” But literally, the words alei ayin mean “over the eye.” So all together, ben porat alei ayin reads, “a son who grew [tall] over the eye.” What are Jacob’s cryptic words referring to? This Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, explains it all:6

When Esau came toward Jacob, all the other mothers went out ahead of their children to prostrate themselves. Concerning Rachel, however, it is written: “and afterwards, Joseph and Rachel drew near and prostrated themselves”7 [denoting that Joseph preceded Rachel]. Joseph said, “This scoundrel has a haughty eye. Perhaps he will take a fancy to my mother.” So he went ahead of her, stretching his height to conceal her. His father was referring to this when he blessed him בֵּן פֹּרָת, “a son who grew,” [meaning,] “You raised yourself over Esau’s eye. Therefore, you have attained greatness.”8

In their epic family reunion, Jacob and Esau met after 34 years of estrangement. A lot had changed in those decades. Jacob had become a family man with four wives and 12 children. He arranged his clan into groups so that each family unit would meet Esau separately.9 There were two women, though, that Esau did not have the privilege of meeting.

Let’s Jacob had become a family manexamine the verse in Genesis: “Leah and her children drew near and prostrated themselves, and after [them], Joseph and Rachel drew near and prostrated themselves.”10 Notice the shift in order. First Leah and then her children. That is understandable; she led the way, her children in tow. Then Joseph and Rachel. Why is Joseph mentioned before his mother? We have seen that the Torah is subtly announcing that Joseph stood in front of his mother in order to entirely block her from Esau’s line of vision, a chivalrous act for which Jacob praised him.

The other family member that Esau didn’t meet was Dinah. She was hidden in a box. This is implied by the following verse in the Torah: “[Jacob] arose during that night, and he took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the ford of [the] Jabbok.”11 What’s problematic about this verse is that the Torah mentioned the birth of all of the children born to Jacob while he was living with his father-in-law in Charan. In total, there were 12 children born there, 11 boys and one girl.12 Why did he cross this river with only 11 kids? Where was number 12?

The Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, answers this question:

But where was Dinah? [Benjamin was not yet born, but Dinah should have been counted.] He put her into a chest and locked her in, so that Esau should not set eyes on her. Therefore, Jacob was punished for withholding her from his brother—[because, had he married her,] perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways—and she fell into the hands of Shechem.13

If Jacob realized he was mistaken in hiding Dinah from Esau, why would he praise Joseph for doing the very same to Rachel?

The answer is that Dinah was a single girl. If Dinah and Esau would meet and want to marry each other, it would have been likely that Esau would give up his hunting escapades and his Sunday night football to become a refined gentleman and a student of the Torah in order to please Dinah.14 But Jacob underestimated the power of his daughter’s beauty, and the opportunity was lost.

Rachel was already married. Esau wouldn’t think of marrying his brother’s wife.15 But he’d probably enjoy looking at her—she was gorgeous! But Joseph didn’t let that happen, and that was a good thing. Jacob blessed him for it.

There is another layer of understanding in Jacob’s blessing to Joseph: בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן, “A son that grew—you are above the eye,” meaning the evil eye, the ayin hara. When someone attracts attention, other people tend to get jealous. That jealous energy can hurt one’s success. (We use the expressions kein ayin hara and ben porat Yosef to ward away that jealous, harmful energy that others may project.16) After Joseph protected his mother’s beauty from the eyes of Esau, he was immune to the evil eye, says the Midrash.

Beauty is a touchy subject. Dinah’s beauty could have pulled at the heartstrings of the most insensitive man that lived. Perhaps that means that in a marriage, a woman’s beauty can soften and sensitize her husband to a more spiritual path. In the context of a relationship, feminine allure is sacred.

But Beauty is a touchy subjectattracting the attention of someone who’s not one’s spouse diffuses that powerful energy and leaves it vulnerable to the forces of evil. Jacob really appreciated it when Joseph made sure that no other man would enjoy Rachel’s beauty. Not because Joseph was afraid that Esau would snatch her away, but because Esau had no right to take pleasure in a woman who wasn’t his wife. Because Joseph blocked any attention that Rachel would get from Esau, he was protected from an ayin hara—jealous and unhealthy energy projected onto him.

Quoting the Talmud and the Zohar, the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized17 that strengthening one’s conduct of modesty is an infallible way to be blessed with good health, sustenance, and much nachat—true Jewish pride from children and grandchildren.18

May we all be abundantly blessed.