Monday, March 15, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Talent

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"Art Talent Test" by Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Talent is, arguably, a valuable thing. I say arguably because I feel that talent often stands in opposition to skill. People tend to be called 'talented' when they show promise but are not yet accomplished. I remember as a beginning violin student talent being measured in terms of Suzuki books per year, age versus skill, or how long you'd been taking private lessons relative to how well you played. Things that in hindsight are not important. "Do you like playing?" is more important. Talent is valuable, but it's not everything. It can also go to waste; it can go undeveloped. It doesn't necessarily do a person or the world any good, but it represents the potential for future skill and creativity. That potential certainly is valuable. 

So I was delighted but not surprised to learn in last week's Torah portion that talent actually is a measure of value: It's a particular weight of gold (or silver or copper). The Israelites, who have left Egypt and received the commandments, are constructing a sanctuary. For this purpose, a man named Bezalel makes a lamp stand "out of a talent of pure gold" (Exodus 37:24). Talent, here, seems to be a unit of measure. Highlight the Hebrew word on Sefaria and it will tell you that it means "a round weight, talent (of gold, silver, bronze, iron)." Yet it could be a double entendre. God has, according to Moses, "endowed [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" (Exodus 35:31). The man had talent, and it went into the menorah along with the gold. 

According to Chambers Etymological Dictionary, the literal meaning of talent as money came first. Talent as "special natural ability, aptitude" arose in the 15th century, a figurative use of the original term "taken from the parable of the talents in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30)," according to Chambers. No mention of Bezalel, alas. 

In the story, a 'lord' gives out several bags of gold to three of his servants. Two of the servants take their literal talents, invest them, and wind up twice as rich as they began. But the servant who receives only one bag of gold digs a hole and buries it, earning nothing but disapproval from the lord, who had hoped to profit from his servants' investments. I suppose the story shows that you should develop your talent. On the other hand, the lord disbursing gold in this story doesn't seem like such a great guy. He's described as someone who harvests where he hasn't sown. Maybe I, too, would want to bury his money.  

The lord gave the third servant a talent of gold. I'm not sure how much that's worth, but a talent of silver is equivalent to three thousand shekels, according to the website Learn Religions. In biblical times, a shekel was a day's wage. The same website says that a talent was something like 20 years' earnings for a laborer. This doesn't quite compute (3,000 shekels per talent/365 shekels per year=about 8 years per talent), but suffice it to say that talent is precious and not easily earned.

I don't actually think it's possible to earn talent. A musician of moderate ability who works all her life may never play as well as an eight-year-old prodigy, for example. And even if, technically, a person reaches a certain level, will they have 'it,' the je ne sais quois? I'm skeptical.  

I do, however, believe that talent demands work and that work picks up where talent leaves off. If you truly bury your talent, that is, don't even pursue the area in which you are gifted, you can't possibly succeed in that area. Not only that but you may miss out on experiences that would be valuable to you, regardless of how others might judge them. On the other hand, someone with less talent and a lot of dedication may fare quite well. 

What does it mean to "fare well" or "succeed"? These matters are subjective, and what matters most is probably personal satisfaction. Hopefully the person who buries their talent doesn't simultaneously use it to measure their self-worth (though I think if it can be done, people do it). 

I had some talent as a violinist, but I put it down in college and focused on something else. I still play the fiddle sometimes, less on my own and more when it's a way to get together with a group of people. My ability to learn tunes by ear serves me well. I also go for long periods without playing. 

A biblical talent weighed something like 75 pounds. I can understand someone wanting to put it down. The feeling that you have all this potential (and I think it's easy to overestimate your own talent) and that turning out to be anything less than extraordinary will be a disappointment is emotionally heavy. Yet when I pick up the violin now, I'm not re-shouldering a burden, or I try not to make it about that. It's about enjoying music.

Skill comes from both talent and experience, yet I don't want to seek an exchange rate between the two. It certainly does take time and work, maybe even a Gladwellian 10,000 hours, maybe even 8 or 20 years, to really develop a skill, no matter how talented you are. A more talented person might achieve a given level slightly faster, or not. But at a certain point, when the answer to "how long have you played the violin?" is 30 years and it no longer relates to how well you play but to the length of your life, it no longer matters exactly how fast you progressed through the Suzuki books in elementary school. As for Bezalel's menorah, what matters is not how quickly he made it, how many years he'd studied as a goldsmith before making it, how old he was when God chose him to make it, whether or not other more experienced goldsmiths were passed over for the job, none of which the Torah tells us, but the fact that he made it and that it served a purpose. As they say, talent's overrated.

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