Reputation

This Saturday, in addition to leading the Szim Salom service along with our rabbi, I will chant Torah, as I do at all our Saturday morning services. Over time, preparation has become much quicker and easier than it used to be. I remember, back in New York, spending hours an evening over the verses, learning the sounds and meanings, bringing them into myself, and pondering them. That was, for me, the most important aspect of Jewish life: immersing myself in the ancient language, texts, and melodies, learning the system of cantillation, learning liturgy. The more recent ease means less time spent on the verses each evening, which means more time for other things (and I’m glad of that), but less time hearing the texts from the inside. And time makes a difference.

So this week, when I found myself pondering Saturday’s reading (from Numbers 14), it reminded me a bit of the old days. Moses has sent spies out to the land of Canaan, to see what the land was like. They have come back with a grim report; the people there are giants, and they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in their own sight and that of the Caananites. Then the children of Israel begin to wail: would that we had died in Egypt! Or here, in the desert! Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, speak out and say that the land is in fact good; in response, the people call for their stoning.

God then loses all patience and asks Moses: “How long will these people despise me?” He declares that he will smite and kill them all, and make of Moses a greater nation.

Moses’s response is (at one level) one of the most peculiar passages I have read in the Torah. He essentially reminds God: If the Egyptians knew that you killed the very people that you brought up from Egypt, they would tell other people that You, who have been in the midst of Your people, going before them “in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night,” have killed them because you could not able to fulfill your promise to them. The Hebrew syntax of these verses is complex, as are the various referents, but the gist seems to be, “What will happen, God, to your reputation?”

There is so much to say and think about Moses’s argument (which ultimately persuades God not to kill all the people, just the older generation)—thousands of commentaries have been written about it—but the question that bothered me was, why would God care what the Egyptians and others say?

The most direct answer is that God would not be able to replace the children of Israel easily, if he damaged his own reputation in this way. Everyone would have heard about his failure and would be reluctant to accept him. So this is Moses’s way of reminding God, “Do not take us for granted, even with all our faults.”

But at a deeper level this suggests that the relationship between humans and God has to be reciprocal. Reputation here is not just gossip and babbling; it can lead to—or stand in the way of—encounter. A God who fulfills his promises and stays faithful to his people will already mean something to the outside world. Even if they believe in other gods, they will keep, in the back of their mind, this image of presence, glory, and mercy. (Verse 18 repeats most of the “thirteen attributes” associated with God.)

In our own lives, reputation has a form analogous to what is suggested here. It isn’t good to get caught up in worrying about what others think of you, but if you keep your promises, fulfill your projects, and treat others kindly, your reputation (in the best sense of the word) will open up the world for you. This kind of reputation is an early rumbling of relationship. So in other words, sometimes it does matter what other people say, when this is a reflection of what you actually have done.

This makes sense in our immediate world. It’s somewhat baffling that this would also be the case with God, but it’s an important bafflement. We get to wrestle with the idea that God is somewhat vulnerable and has something to lose, and that the words of humans matter not only in our sphere, but beyond. Maybe liturgy itself is a way of carrying reputation. The verb שמע (to hear, listen), along with the related שֵׁמַע (hearing, report), which in turn is suggestive of שֵׁם (name), has an essential role in these verses, and in liturgy too: hearing, and hearing the name, and listening closely, all have to do with building a relationship with God.

I say all of this, by the way, as someone who does not always believe in God. Sometimes I clearly do; sometimes I am not so sure. It is great to be able to stay with these texts and to chant them in Hebrew, no matter how my own thoughts and feelings fluctuate. That is what I have been learning, as I serve as Szim Salom’s primary cantor (now for three and a half years, going strong). I don’t always feel religious, or observant, or sure of what I am doing. But I love the role and Szim Salom itself, and have found so much good in staying with the responsibilities and finally owning them. For a long time I was shy about calling myself a cantor, since the word has such grand associations for me. But cantors come in great variety, and this is good. I give what I can, and I learn as I go along. I am always seeking to do better.

Here is a picture of the rabbi and me outside the Methodist church in Buda where we used to hold services back in 2017 and early 2018. (Before we moved to Bálint Ház, we had no place, so the very kind minister, Gábor Iványi, and his congregation offered us the space on Shabbatot.) It is no wonder that he has a reputation as a holy man.

The image of the Hebrew text and translation, from Numbers 14, is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Painting: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.

As usual, I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

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