Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Naso

Can Chayn Mean “Charisma”?

I once loved the word. I first heard it when I was introduced to the thought of German sociologist Max Weber. He differentiated between several types of leaders, one of whom had neither specialized expertise nor royal birth, but whose authority rested on the devotion instilled in his followers by the force of his personality. He termed that force of personality “charisma,” and he wrote eloquently of the power of charisma and of the great danger charismatic leaders posed to society.

Ever since then, I have been fascinated by this quality of charisma and have studied the lives of charismatic leaders. In the Bible, Abraham and King David clearly had charisma; Isaac and King Saul, much less so. Closer to our day, both Churchill and Hitler had it, proving that it can equally be used for good and for evil. Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey, two politicians I admired back in high school, did not have it. And Jack Kennedy had it in spades!

What is charisma? Dictionary definitions include “a rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse popular devotion,” or more simply, “personal magnetism or charm.” The word also has a religious connotation, because it stems from the Greek word kharisma (divine favor), so that in Christianity, it specifically refers to the “ability to perform miracles, granted by the Holy Spirit.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso, we come across a word which, I will argue, can well be translated as “charisma.” That word is chayn, spelled chet-nun, and it appears in the second verse of the well-known Priestly Blessing, which reads, “May the Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious to thee.” (Numbers 6:25)

That last phrase, which is the typical translation of vichuneka, is not favored by Rashi. Rather, he renders it, “…and He shall grant you chayn” – the quality of grace, of charm, and as I maintain, of charisma.

Charisma in the sense of grace is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah as a divine gift. In Exodus 33:19, we come across a somewhat mysterious passage in which God says, “I will bestow chayn upon whomever I bestow chayn.” It is almost as if He, somewhat arbitrarily from our human perspective, gives the gift of grace, charm, or charisma to whomever He chooses to give it. This is certainly the implication of the verse, “And Noah found chayn in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8).

We have all encountered individuals in our own lives who seem to have been blessed with the gift of chayn/charisma. In every high school class, and certainly in my own, there was one fellow who had it. He was the most popular among his peers, excelled academically, and usually had great athletic prowess as well. He was the one chosen by his classmates as “most likely to succeed.”

But is chayn always a blessing? Is charisma always a positive virtue? Apparently not, for already in Scripture, we find it referred to in negative terms. “Chayn is deceptive (sheker hachayn), and beauty is illusory,” reads the verse in Proverbs 31:30, a verse we melodiously recite at the Sabbath table every Friday evening.

When I think back to the charismatic youngsters of my high school class and the one preceding it, I cannot help but reflect on their ultimate destinies. One struggled with alcoholism all of his adult life, constantly frustrated because he felt he was not living up to his potential. He died the premature death of a derelict on a New York City skid row. The other settled into a mediocre bureaucratic career, neurotically fearful to use his very real talents lest he be outshone by others.

Furthermore, the gift of charisma is often abused. Tyrants too numerous to mention have used their charisma for supreme evil. Adolf Hitler is but the most obvious case in point.

Religious leaders as well have all too frequently used their charismatic qualities for fiendish ends. The list of gurus and clergymen who have been guilty of perverse treatment of their followers or even their own children is a shamefully long one. Sadly, it includes spiritual leaders in our own community who have abused their devotees and disciples in vile manners.

The Talmud knows of a different kind of charisma entirely, one that is more common and may be even be considered the force which makes for cohesive relationships and societies. Substitute the word “charisma” or “charm” for the word “chayn” in this Talmudic passage:

“Rabbi Yochanan said:
There are three kinds of chayn:
The chayn a city has for those who dwell in it;
The chayn a wife has in the eyes of her husband;
The chayn an object holds for him who purchased it.” (Sotah 47a)

Although I was born and bred in Brooklyn, I have lived most of my life in the city of Baltimore. It has charisma; enough so that for me it merits its claim to be “Charm City.”

My wife radiates charisma to me — as I hope your spouse does to you, dear reader – in the sense of charm and dignity and grace.

And who does not recall fondly that old “lemon” of an automobile which he or she purchased way back when? We react to the image of that jalopy with nostalgic and sentimental memories of its charm and charisma.

So the next time you hear the blessing “May the Lord shine His face upon you and grant you chayn,” think of the kind of charisma you personally hope for, and make sure that if you get it, you use it for a blessed purpose.