In The Master of the Ladder: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag, the author, Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottlieb, discusses the views of a Porisov Rebbe on community members who seek honor and recognition.
“In general, people look for honor; they imagine that they are working spiritually, but they are not really prepared to invest their entire lives to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of inner work. To such people, the sage of Porisov gave the honor they were looking for. But those disciples who sincerely wanted instruction on how to follow the path leading to affinity of form with the Almighty, and were prepared to give their all for this purpose, weren’t interested in honor or flattery. On the contrary, they found such approbations repulsive since they knew that such praises kept them from knowing the truth about themselves…”
One could only imagine what someone like the Porisov Rebbe would have thought about the current state of society where likes, comments, and the number of followers on social media are more gratifying than even money. A person’s self-worth is no longer, or perhaps never was, measured by the good deeds they accomplished. No, the measure is how much attention you draw to yourself while announcing, most likely on social media, that you are about to do something good. Hopefully the good deed will be done, at some point, but the seeking of honor and recognition is often the intended goal, not the benefit of the actions.
In many Jewish communities, receiving honor and recognition is the driving goal of the established communal structure. The following old joke perfectly makes the point. A group of active community members raise funds for a new fighter jet for Israel. They gather at the airport to watch the jet take off for its first flight. The jet taxis to the end of the runway, turns on its engines and accelerates. Then suddenly it stops and pulls up to where the donors have gathered. The pilot opens the cockpit and says to the group, “the state of Israel is honored to receive your contributions, but if this jet is to take off, we will need to take some of the donor recognition plaques off the wings.” The joke is perfect because it illustrates how the need for recognition is literally keeping the good deed down.
Every event and occasion is an opportunity to honor and be honored. Honored to be called to the Torah, honored to receive the award, honored to be honored at the gala, for the donation, for the outreach, for volunteering. Honored to be in the company of such honored people who are honored to be with me, because I am honoring them. I think that sounds right. Okay, point made, I hope.
We still want to recognize people who are contributing their time and resources, if for no other reason than to motivate others to do the same. A donor gives money to build a Jewish school, their name goes on the building, they are honored and celebrated, and in the end, more children get a Jewish education. Certainly, this is a net win for everyone. And yet, Maimonides writes at length on the virtues of performing good deeds without seeking honor, and in Proverbs 21:14 it says, “A gift in secret subdues anger.” Some commentators interpret this as subduing the anger of the gift recipient since they don’t have to feel shame, while others see it as subduing the anger of God. In the Talmud the following is written, “One who performs acts of charity in secret is greater than Moses, our teacher”.
There is no easy resolution to this. Human nature craves attention and recognition. Perhaps the first step is to be conscious and mindful of this when we seek honor or offer it in bulk to those who may benefit us. Also, we can honor organizations, projects and missions, rather than giving/receiving personal honor. With that said, I am honored that you read this article.