Warren Buffett has famously said that while it takes 20 years to build a reputation, five minutes is sufficient to ruin one.
As someone who is only a few months older than twenty myself, I think I’ll have to take it from the much more experienced Mr. Buffett.
Either way, there is something to be said about the importance of building meaningful relationships, whether they be of a professional, social, familial, or romantic nature.
As I write, the Hebrew month of Kislev is already well underway. That means the Chanukah holiday, which begins on the 25th day of Kislev, is approaching fast.
There is no better motif than oil with which to describe Chanukah. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat tells us that when the victorious Hasmoneans rededicated the Second Temple, a meager jug of olive oil managed to sustain constant light for eight days.
Hence, it is customary for Jews to light candles and eat fried foods in celebration of this miraculous outcome. The resulting cornucopia of jelly donuts, potato latkes, and other greasy treats may very well be a dermatologist or nutritionist’s worst nightmare.
I’d like to provide some additional food for thought in anticipation of the Festival of Lights. According to King Solomon, the author of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), there might be something more to oil than just french fries or donuts. Chapter 7, verse 1 of Kohelet reads: “A good name is better than fine oil.”
This fascinating proverb attempts to link a good reputation with oil—a quintessential theme of Hanukkah. It’s an amusing—and very timely—connection between two seemingly unrelated topics.
At first glance, the link between the two topics seems unclear. How are we supposed to make sense of it? In other words, how might certain characteristics and properties of oil inform how we view our relationships with others?
I’d like to focus on one interpretation in particular, offered by the 18th-century commentary, the Metzudat David. In his explanation of the verse, Rabbi Dovid Altschuler, the author, writes that there is a qualitative difference in how oil interacts with its surroundings, compared to the impact a good name makes on others.
The smell of good oil, the Metzudat Dovid writes, is limited, and finite. Oil tends to gradually lose its fragrance with time. Thus, the value of oil, as precious as it may be, will inevitably diminish, or depreciate, in the long term.
However, the value of a good name is actually poised to have the opposite effect. In the long run, our reputations, relationships with others, and human capital manage to appreciate in value. They have the ability to grow more robust with the passage of time.
In the third chapter of the Talmud’s Masechet Taanit, there is a scintillating anecdote that demonstrates how our deeds and actions—insofar as they affect others—can carry eternal value.
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Beruka Hoza’a would often encounter the great Elijah the Prophet in his town’s marketplace. On one particular day, Rabbi Beruka asked Elijah if there was anyone nearby who would be sure to have a place in the world to come.
Elijah pointed to an individual who had no discernible features that would render him Jewish. He wasn’t wearing tzitzit, for example. Curiously, Elijah and Rabbi Beruka asked this mysterious man to identify himself and to share his occupation.
The man responded that he was a prison guard, thus explaining his unusual dress. On a regular basis, the guard said, he would endanger himself, if needed, to uphold his values and keep his inmates safe. On one occasion, he said, he managed to save a young Jewish girl from her captors by spilling red wine on her garment and convincing them that she was menstruating.
Shortly thereafter, Elijah indicated two other individuals who he said were worthy of the world to come. Upon meeting, the men revealed that they were comedians who cheered up the downtrodden and assisted in the resolution of disputes.
I believe that these anecdotes exemplify how rewarding our actions can be when they uplift or serve others. Moreover, when we invest in our communities, our efforts are likely to have increased returns to scale: the more we give, the more reward we generate.
In this sense, we may merit being granted “eternal life” in the world to come.
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which, like Ecclesiastes, is attributed to King Solomon, Solomon teaches us that pri tzaddik etz chayim — the products of the righteous are like a tree of life. Our legacies, defined by our integrity, honesty, and relationship quality, have the potential to be great, regenerative, and long-lasting.
As an asset, however, precious oil does not possess these same qualities.
I believe there is yet another takeaway from the Metzudat Dovid’s interpretation of the verse in Ecclesiastes. According to the Talmud, the essential nature of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukkah candles is that of Ner Ish U’bayto: one candle suffices per household.
Yet, we also know that a large component of lighting Chanukkah candles is to promote the idea of pirsumei nissah, or publicizing the original Chanukkah miracle. To accomplish this goal, the Rabbis instruct us to light a candle next to a doorpost or window that overlooks the public domain.
Thus, there is a major inconsistency, even a contradiction, between these two concepts. How does having nuclear families light a mere candle each night help accomplish the goal of publicizing the awesome, supernatural miracle that occurred in the Second Temple many centuries ago?
The resolution to this paradox, I believe, in large part relates back to how a good name is superior to good oil.
Chanukah is a fundamentally insular holiday. We light the candles with our families, as we are instructed. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and inclement. We opt to celebrate inside, eating oily foods, spinning dreidels, and engaging in other festivities.
Yet, the Chanukah experience ought to have the ultimate effect of empowering us to channel our energies outward. We should emerge ready to apply Chanukkah’s eight days of introspection and isolation toward bettering our communities. In this way, the miracle of Chanukah is publicized and perpetuated.
In Hebrew, one of the meanings of the word “Chanukah” is “rededication on the 25th (of Kislev).” Chanukah is therefore a time for rededication, when we ought to strengthen our commitments to ourselves, our families, our communities, and ultimately, society at large.
Personal growth and character improvements that come from within are apt to make a difference in our communities. Large-scale societal changes first develop on the individual basis.
And, when we pour our energy and resources into others, we partake in an investment that is sure to accrue value with time. Unlike fine oil, as expensive or coveted as it may be, only a good name is capable of having such a property.
To conclude, the book of Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Forefathers,” contains a line that, I believe, astutely exemplifies the true significance of a good name according to Jewish tradition.
In Chapter 4, Rabbi Shimon outlines the three so-called “crowns” of Judaism: the crown of Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Yet, superseding all three of these crowds, according to Rabbi Shimon, is the signature crowd— that one of a good name, or a shem tov.
It is clear that, while not being considered one of the “three crowns” itself, the crown of a good name nevertheless transcends the other three. It is as if the crown of a good name overarches all else.
Could it be possible that a good name is, perhaps, even priceless? This Chanukah, may we merit being crowned with a shem tov.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”