Day 18: Netzach she’b’Tiferet, Endurance within Beauty
A famous proverb:
ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ׃
Tov shem mi’shemen tov; v’yom hamavet mi’yom hivaldo.
A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
What a powerful proverb! Notice, first, the alliteration. A good name—shem tov—is better than fragrant oil—shem tov. The words shem and shemen are so close! But could anyone confuse a good reputation with an expensive vial of scented oil?
You know the answer. Of course they could. And so they do. Wealth confers social status. So, those who can, show off their wealth with fine goods. Thus, they build a reputation. Also, a wealthy person can buy many beautiful things. So, in difficult times, they can take comfort in beauty. Then, they feel they have a place in the world.
But don’t be fooled! Oil spoils—inevitably. So, beware, if you stake your life on a fine oil. Or, rather, on the trappings of wealth and status. Because those spoil—inevitably. What happens if you lose your wealth? Or get exposed for seeking it unethically? Then, your reputation is gone.
So, find another way to make a good name for yourself. By helping others, for example. Gain wisdom and share it. Work for equity and justice. Donate food, money, or time to those in need. These kinds of goods don’t spoil. Instead, their impact just gets better and better.
But, really, you don’t need a proverb to tell you that integrity is better than perfume. This is obvious! You can easily verify it in the real world. It might be an existential challenge to apply this principle consistently! But the principle in the first part of the proverb is plain.
So, maybe, we are supposed to use the obvious first part of the proverb to decode the confusing second part. How is the day of death better than the day of birth?
Your birth day is like a new vial of fragrant oil. A beautiful day, filling your family with joy, as they imagine all that is possible for you. They even give you a name, expressing their hopes for you. But you haven’t yet lived into it.
Inevitably, over time, a family’s early dreams spoil. Life brings challenges, and not everything is possible. You might change your name to fit the new path.
Still, you do your best. When times are hard, you share your wisdom, food, money, skills. You bring comfort and beauty to others. And then, on the day of your death, people name all the good you have done in the world. In your name, they, too, resolve to support others. Finally, your name points to all you have done. Your impact lives on, in a way that cannot spoil.
IDEAS. Do you agree with the proverb’s teaching about short-lived vs. long lasting beauty?
FEELINGS. Do you feel unsettled as you read this post? Ashamed of yourself or annoyed by the proverb’s moralism? Sit with the feeling and try to understand its source.
PRACTICES. What do you think is the most lasting contribution you can make to the world? Or to the circles closest to you? Take another tiny step towards it today.
GOD. Which values do you think are the most spiritual values? The ones that seem to express the divine in you? Or the ones you think God most cares about?
About the Questions
These questions take off from the text above. And they also go deeper into the day’s reflections in the book Shechinah, Bring Me Home: Kabbalah and the Omer in Real Life.
There are many ways to explore these questions. You can: Tell a story from your own life. Give an example from a book or a movie. Write a poem. Analyze a concept. Offer a definition. Draw a picture. Sing a song.
New to the Omer? Here’s a guide to the theory and practice.