The pursuit of honor, in our tradition, traces itself back to the second Biblical tale – that of Cain and Abel; a story that revolves around Kayin’s jealousy of the honor and recognition bestowed upon his younger brother, Hevel. It’s a cautionary tale of how dangerous this quest for honor can be; ultimately it leads to the murder of Hevel and the upending of Kayin’s life as he knew it. And in placing this story in such a prominent location, the Torah is informing us that on the one hand, our need for attention and recognition is central to the human condition, and on the other, how dangerous that pursuit can be.
This past week, Kim Jung-Un and President Trump met in Singapore for what may have been the most important meeting of the twenty-first century. Even Nick Kristoff, editor for the New York Times, who called the meeting a failure, acknowledged that there is no doubt that this meeting has prevented any nuclear war for the immediate future (Wednesday, The Daily). And for that, regardless of our politics, we should all be grateful.
But it was also a great display of what happens when two of the most honor-seeking people in the world get together; the long, and dramatic handshakes. The over-the-top security details. And of course, the infamous movie trailer – the video that the President showed Ung demonstrating that the two of them, if they made the right choices, would save the world; Super-Trump and Rocket-Man to the rescue.
It was the type of summit you would expect from the two of them. After all, this is President Trump, who spent the first week of his presidency defending the small crowds at his inauguration, the man who tweets a response to anyone who insults him. And Kim Jung-Un – you ever notice how in every picture of him there are ministers in the background, clapping and smiling from ear to ear. You know why they do that? Because if you don’t clap loudly or smile broadly – and I’m not making this up – you get shot by a firing squad.
I’ll take the crazy twitter feed any day.
Our Sages in Pirkei Avos state that kavod, the pursuit of honor, is a behavior that is motzi adam min ha’olam, it takes a person out of this world. Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains this to mean that it destroys one’s capacity to enjoy life. And that’s because a person who runs after honor and recognition will never come to a point where they are satisfied with it. Case in point – you’re the president of the United States! You won the biggest popularity contest in the world! Who cares how many people showed up at your inauguration?!
It’s an endless, futile, and miserable pursuit. The more we run after kavod, the more it runs away from us (Avos). The more we seek recognition, the less people are inclined to give it to us. And so when we chase after this impossible goal, we get angry, we grow bitter, and we live a miserable life. Hakinah, ha’taavah, v’hakavod motzi’in es ha’adam min ha’olam.
But, I have to hand it to the President, because although he is clearly one of the most over-the-top arrogant people that I can think of – he also knows it. In an interview after the Singapore summit, Trump said that although he trusts Kim to dismantle his nuclear program, he acknowledged that time may prove him wrong. And then he added, “I don’t know if I’ll ever admit that, [but] I’ll find some kind of …excuse.”
At least he is self-aware enough to acknowledge that he would protect his image at all costs. Because it’s one thing to be arrogant, it’s far worse to be running after honor and not have the insight to realize what you’re doing. (It’s not only worse, it’s actually kind of irritating too!) I was thrilled to find out that someone coined a term for this type of fake humility. It’s called a humblebrag. Isn’t that a great term? A humble brag.
Humblebrags are so common that there are actually different categories of humblebrags. I’ll share with you some examples. These are tweets from real people. This is from the category of ‘Suffering in the Gilded Cage’ humblebrags:
“Argh! just seen someone sitting opposite me on train is reading my book. Quite embarrassed. Watching for signs of enjoyment. He’s frowning.”
Or, “Remember when limos were cool? Now they’re pretty lame!! Every time I ride in one I feel corny… Glad it’s 3:30 am”
Or, the ‘I’m such an Idiot Humblebrag’:
“If you could ask a US president a question in confidence, what would it be? (Don’t be a dummy like me and ask for his tie!)”
The most common and absolute worst, the ‘I’m So Busy Humblebrag’: “Waking up in the morning is so hard, I have to respond to thirty different text messages.”
I could go on, but I think you get the point. We’ve all heard humblebrags before, and frankly, we’ve all probably let a few slip from time to time. The bottom line is that humblebrags don’t work. We may smile when we hear one, or even look a little sympathetic, but inside our heads, we are clicking that eye-roll-emoji over and over again.
There’s an old Chassidic tale that demonstrates the failure of the humblebrag. It’s a story of a man who went to the Kotzker Rebbe and said, “The Mishna in Pirkei Avos states that ‘one who runs away from kavod, receives kavod; if you run away from the limelight, the limelight will catch up to you.” The man continues, he said, “I’ve been running away from kavod my whole life and I still never get any honor. Why is that?”
The Kotzker rebbe, known for his sharp tongue, responded, “It’s true, you’ve been running from kavod, but you keep on looking over your shoulder to see if it’s catching up with you!”
In this week’s parsha we have a great example of the most insidious form of the humblebrag. In the words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm: Korach, he writes, “did not call a press conference and announce that he was going to initiate a coup d’état in order to satisfy his ambition for greater power and influence. He did turn his eyes heavenward and act as the protector of a true demagogue, he denounced Moses and Aaron saying, “Have you not taken enough power for yourselves? Do you not realize that all these people are holy, that not only the two of you are holy?” He set himself up as the great democrat, defender of the people. Jewish tradition further records that Korah tried to make Moses and Aaron appear as tyrants who needlessly exploited the people for their personal gain and profit. He cast himself in the role of the advocate of the ordinary, common man against the tyranny of Moses.”
But despite his great acting skills, the Yalkut Reuveni, shares with us an interesting insight. It states that Korach was a reincarnation of the soul of Kayin. Without getting into what reincarnation is all about, what this Kabbalistic book is trying to teach us is that Korach had a whole lot in common with Kayin; both were driven by a pursuit of honor. What the Yalkut Reuveni is teaching us is not to be fooled by all this pious talk. The devil quotes scripture better than anyone else. (And that’s why Moshe doesn’t respond to Korach’s lofty claims. Moshe calls out on his real agenda, “You just want recognition.” And Korach has nothing to say in response.)
So there you have it. There is the humble-brag, the not-so-humble-brag, and the wolf-in-sheepskin-humblebrag. None are good, all are irritating, but neither are they entirely escapable.
Because you see, we all need kavod. We all need honor. Honor is an expression of our value. If we were to think for a moment, heaven forbid, that we have no value, how could we go on? If a person were to truly think that they have no purpose, no significance, what would get them out of bed in the morning?
(Based on a teaching of the Alter of Slabodka)
And so yes, we need kavod, we need to have honor. But it has to come from within.
And the truth is, there is no better source for positive regard than ourselves. We know better than anyone else what we’ve accomplished, we don’t need others to tell us! We know better than anyone else what’s going on inside, what we’ve been through, what this or that means to us, why allow others to dictate how we should feel about it?! Instead of humble-bragging, waiting for others to nod in approval, we need to learn how to internally-brag; to stop and appreciate who we are, whether anyone else notices it. Don’t get me wrong, we should never allow ourselves to be a shmatta, but it’s okay if people don’t always treat us the way they should. We, and no one else, need to be the source of our own kavod.
Which brings me to the third part of the Kayin-Korach saga; it’s a happy ending to a tragic set of stories. The Haftorah speaks of the appointment of the first Jewish king by the prophet Shmuel. There’s a backstory and it goes like this: When Shmuel hears that the Jewish People want a new leader he is shocked and he’s angry. After all, he is the leader of the Jewish People! Not only is he the leader, but according to our Sages, he’s an even greater leader than Moshe and Aharon! And he’s in his prime! Understandably, Shmuel feels humiliated and completely underappreciated by the Jewish People’s request!
Did I mention that Shmuel was a grandson of Korach?
But here’s the happy ending – because eventually Shmuel comes around. Eventually, as we read today, Shmuel respectfully and honorably anoints Saul as the new king of Israel. Shmuel steps back from the limelight and allows his successor to shine.
The Mishna in Avos says it so beautifully, “Eizehu mechubad, who is an honorable individual? Hamechabed es habriyos, one who honors others.” The man or woman who is dependent on others for their self-esteem can never compliment someone else. On the contrary, it leads them, as it led Korach and Kayin, down a path of destruction. But someone who has inner wellsprings of kavod, who knows their own worth, someone like Shmuel, such a person is capable of honoring others. That is the litmus test. If all we do is run after kavod, it runs away from us. But when we give ourselves permission to recognize our own self-worth, not the humblebrag, but the internal-brag; when we become so confident in our self-regard that we can share it with others by letting them know how great they are, that is the true definition of kavod.