Rep Prep

The reputation nation: Parshat Lech Lecha

In Short

What can biblical forefather Abram teach us about building a good reputation?

Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.” Digitally, we can ruin someone’s reputation even faster than that. One negative tweet, Uber rating, restaurant posting, RateMyProfessor rant or newspaper comment can damage someone’s reputation irrevocably. There are websites today that try to manage or defend reputations to “help professionals develop and promote a truthful and positive online image through proactive reputation management strategies.” If it were only that easy. Gossip, cancellations and general trash talk cannot easily be done away with, especially in this polarizing climate. Buffett, in his quote above, put the onus on the person rather than his or her critics. “If you think,” he says, about how quickly your reputation can change, “you’ll do things differently.”

Understanding the importance of a sterling leadership reputation is as old as the first Jew, Abraham. One of the most astonishing and understudied encounters between Abram, as he was then called, and his neighbors appears in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Lech Lecha. In chapter 14, Abraham found himself amidst a battle between four kings and five kings. The verses are not easy to follow, given the number of leaders involved and the complex geography. All war brings confusion and collateral damage. As the battle ends, “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine” and blessed Abram for winning the war. The Jewish ritual of blessing wine and breaking bread originates with a foreign king. Abram then gave a tenth of what he owned to King Melchizedek as some form of tax or tribute. Then the King of Sodom, another of the kings who fought, said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” 

When wars are over, it is time to tally up losses and split rewards. Abram, however, was not willing to take a thing. “Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’” Rashi observes that Abram was confident that God would provide him with wealth, as implied from in Genesis 12:2. He did not, therefore, want a human being to take the credit. 

Abram wanted nothing from these skirmishes. He gave a portion of what he had without taking as much as a shoelace. He did not even take a small and insignificant item. The Talmud (BT Hullin 89a) concludes from this that Abram’s descendants would merit two commandments that involve a string or strap: the thread of sky-blue wool worn on ritual fringes and the strap of the phylacteries.

Abram, it seems, wanted to make a statement to those around him about his personal integrity as a leader and about the kind of God he served. Abram attributed his success to God — his singular God — alone.  War, to him, was not about bounty or despoiling and exploiting the vulnerable. It was about mediating unfortunate obstructions to the divine promise he received. Societally, he was within his right to take what he had captured, but gave away his money instead. By not taking the loot of war, he was also making a positive character deposit in the minds of the leaders who surrounded him. Abram was forgoing short-term gains for the long-term investment that was his reputation. When it comes to our reputations, there are no short-cuts.

Later, in Genesis 34:30, after Dina is taken and raped by Shechem, Jacob chastises his sons Simeon and Levi for creating and implementing a devious plan to punish Shechem’s community: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land…” The Hebrew expression to make one odious, “akhartem oti,” literally means to make me smell bad. A smell is invisible but can leave a highly potent signature of one’s presence. The medieval Spanish commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, explains Jacob’s fears: “They will hate me as one loathes something which gives off a horrible odor.” In the world we live in, Jacob was trying to teach his sons that our reputations matter. Even when others hurt us profoundly, we must always take the high ground in response. 

Abram’s defense of his personal integrity as a leader brings to mind another potent biblical encounter. As the prophet Samuel aged and effectively retired from service, he sought redress from his people in the form of a public pledge of his honesty. 

Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader. As for me, I have grown old and gray — but my sons are still with you — and I have been your leader from my youth to this day. Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the LORD and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you.” They responded, “You have not defrauded us, and you have not robbed us, and you have taken nothing from anyone.” (I Samuel 12:1-4)

The Talmud (BT Nedarim 38a) contends from this passage that Samuel, like Abraham, was wealthy; he did not need to rely upon the bribes and handouts of his flock. But there is something deeper going on in this odd summative speech.

Samuel was a steward of the Israelites from his youngest years, as soon as his mother Hannah pledged him to the Temple under the high priest Eli. Here, he recounts his lifetime of service to the people, culminating with the majestic testament of all leaders who weather the storms with their flock over decades: Here I am! Despite it all. Because of it all. I am still here with you. Samuel needed his people to affirm that the associations people would have with him long after he was gone would remain positive and noble. If there had been any misunderstanding or misuse of his authority, let it be known now, Samuel stated aloud. The people let it be known. Samuel, they responded in unison, took nothing. He was sterling in character and trustworthiness.

Reputations are fragile. We cannot always count on others to be fair. Leaders can control many things. But they cannot control what is said about them. What leaders can control, as Abraham, Jacob and Samuel teach us, is what they do to protect the reputations they already have. So, too, with us all. Work hard. Serve. Apologize often. Compensate for error. And, most importantly, assume good intent. The fact that someone may not judge us favorably does not mean that we should do the same. We must remind ourselves that we are not the worst mistake we have ever made, nor is someone else. Reputations are built on a thousand small acts of kindness.