I first heard the word “charisma” when I was introduced to the thought of German sociologist Max Weber. He differentiated between several types of leaders; one who 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 its power and of the great danger charismatic leaders posed to society.
Ever since, I have been fascinated by this quality of charisma. 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 be used for good and for evil. Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey did not have it; 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; in Christianity, it refers to the “ability to perform miracles, granted by the Holy Spirit.”
In Naso, we come across a word that can well be translated as “charisma.” That word is chen, spelled het nun, and it appears in the second verse of the well-known Priestly Blessing, “May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” (Numbers 6:25)
That last phrase, which is the typical translation of vihuneha, is not favored by Rashi. Rather, he renders it, “…and He shall grant you chen” — the quality of grace, charm, and, as I maintain, 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 chen upon whomever I bestow chen.” It is almost as if He, somewhat arbitrarily from our human perspective, gives the gift of grace, charm, or charisma to whomever He chooses. This is certainly the implication of the verse, “And Noah found chen in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8)
We have all encountered individuals who seem to have been blessed with the gift of chen/charisma. In every high school class there was one fellow who had it. He was the most popular, 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 chen/charisma always a blessing, a positive virtue? Apparently not, for in Scripture, we find it referred to in negative terms. “Chen is deceptive (sheker ha chen), and beauty is illusory,” reads Proverbs 31:30, a verse we recite at the Sabbath table every Friday evening.
When I think back to the charismatic youngsters of my high school days, I cannot help but reflect on their ultimate destinies. One struggled with alcoholism all 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 Talmud knows of a different kind of charisma entirely, one that is more common and may even be considered the force that makes for cohesive relationships and societies: “Rabbi Yohanan said: There are three kinds of chen: the chen a city has for those who dwell in it; the chen a wife has in the eyes of her husband; the chen an object holds for him who purchased it.” (Sotah 47a)
So the next time you hear the blessing “May the Lord shine His face upon you and grant you chen,” 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.