Re'eh: There's no such thing as bad publicity?

In politics, I’ve heard, there’s no such thing as bad press. 

Of course, no politician prefers criticism or scandal to praise and respect, but the worst thing is irrelevance.  “It’s not what they say about you that matters, it’s whether they talk about you!”  Proponents of this idea argue that voters have short memories; if a candidate makes an impression, they’ll remember the name long after they’ve forgotten why. Then, when they arrive at the ballot box and look at a list of names, they’ll most often choose the most familiar one.    

Name recognition is also a paramount value in Judaism, although not in the same way!   We can start with G-d’s name.  Many places in the Jewish Bible and in our liturgy refer to G-d’s name (literally, “shem”), rather than to G-d directly.  In the Kaddish, we pray Y’itkadal vy’itkadash shmei rabbah. (May His great name grow exalted and sanctified).  In the “second line” of the Sh’ma we say: Baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam vaed.   (Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever).  (Attributed to Jacob; see Talmud, Pesachim 56a).  At funerals, we say “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken; Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”  (Job 1:21).  And, of course, many Jews refer to G-d simply as HaShem: “The name.”  

We also see that Torah distinguishes between G-d and the Divine Name.  In this week’s portion, at Deuteronomy 12:5, the text refers to the place where G-d will choose to establish G-d’s name.  One interpretation of this is that whereas G-d dwells in heaven, G-d’s name dwells only in the Temple (or did, until its destruction in 70 CE).  Critical Bible scholarship usually attributes this Deuteronomic reference to King Josiah’s 7th century BCE centralizing reforms, which sought to refocus worship and political activity/power in Jerusalem and the Temple.

Judaism also places great emphasis upon the sanctity of people’s names.  A person’s name – that is, her reputation – is far more susceptible to harm than her body because a “name” can be “everywhere” at once.  A person’s reputation can be subtlety damaged or completely trashed without the owner ever knowing that it happened, much less having an opportunity to prevent it.   This is why Judaism views gossiping as such a great evil.  Each of us is highly vulnerable to others’ gossip about us.  And each of us is far more likely to hurt others – whether intentionally or not – by “dissing” their name than by physically accosting them.

Since very few of us run for office or are interested in counting votes (or Facebook “likes”) about us, we care much more about what is said about us than whether anything is said.  We do want to have good reputations, especially among our family, current and potential friends and acquaintances, employers, and others.  We want to be a “ba’al shem tov,” Master (owner) of a good name.  We can spend years, even decades, trying to “establish” and preserve our good name "in the place(s) we choose."   But our efforts can be severely tarnished, even thwarted, by thoughtless or mean-spirited words.

Because “Love your fellow as yourself” is both a leading ethical principle of Judaism and a practical guide to harmonious relationships, we need to be as careful about what we say and what we hear about others as we would want others to be when they talk about us or listen to others do so.  The Torah admonishes us:  “Don’t go around as a tale bearer among your people.”  (Leviticus 19:16).  It’s for our own good as well as for others.    

What’s in a name?  Much of what is dear in life.   

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.      

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb