Friday, March 14, 2008

Seeking Solutions or Seeking Kavod?

In English we have the saying "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." In simple translation it can mean that only those who are obviously noticed will get attention. It can also be taken to mean that if you need something, speak up; silence will get you nowhere. We all know plenty of "squeaky wheels." Their names are often brought up in conversation, their names pepper the pages of publications. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes it is not.

The poet Emily Dickinson had a different take on public recognition. She wrote:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Clearly Dickinson felt there was something negative in striving to be a publicly recognized persona. Far from elation, "somebodies" lead dreary lives. Unstated in the poem but underlying its meaning is also the idea that he who the "bog" has anointed can also be toppled.

I would add in that the reason for the public squeaking should be paramount. What is the motive of the squeaker? Why is he/she squeaking? Perhaps germane here is another saying: "some seek greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them." Some people do what they do, say what they say, because of a real concern over a particular problem or problems. Their concern is centered around fixing something they see as broken rather than on what public recognition will come to them if they speak up. It is not kavod they are seeking but solutions to problems. Others seek kavod, expect kavod, desire kavod and their actions all center around what will bring them that kavod in great measure. A few people fall in the middle; they may not have actively sought kavod, but having "found" it, they aren't going to let it go.

We in Klal aren't immune from this squeaking. There have always been those who thrust themselves forward, who grab the limelight, sometimes with the intention of putting themselves in a position where kavod will shower on them. Greatness has not been thrust upon them; they have grabbed it for themselves. And it matters not at all to these people that others may look askance at them; what is important is the public exposure. Others have tried to remain in the background, preferring to be the power behind the throne, yet have found themselves to suddenly be public personas.

In the past months, perhaps years, there have been pronouncements and actions taken in Klal that have thrust many into the public limelight. Many of these actions and pronouncements have brought public outcries. Sometimes the people who have taken these actions have found a favorable reception to what they are saying. Other times there has been real public consternation at the actions. Sometimes the only reason for these actions that makes any sense is that someone needed to make a name for themselves; someone was seeking kavod. And when we "nobodies" protest that there is "something rotten in Denmark," they try to banish us to the nether regions.

I would ask these people to remember that there is a real difference between being famous and being infamous. I would caution us to remember that knowing someone's name should not equate to their being someone we should venerate based on name recognition alone. I would also remind us that sometimes, when a wheel is squeaking, that means that there is something wrong with the wheel. Sometimes a squeaky wheel just can't be repaired and needs to be replaced. And yes, we also need to remember that there are lots of wheels in Klal that never give a squeak and quietly, in the background, go about their job of being wheels.

Yes, sometimes, there may be good reasons for squeaking, and squeaking loudly. And sometimes those squeakings are more about seeking public recognition, about seeking kavod, then they are about seeking solutions to real problems. We need to learn to discern the difference.


Anonymous said...

Look at shul, school and organization dinners and you see this in action. A few of the honorees are people who have worked hard for the group without wanting the recognition but are given it anyway. Some of them are really uncomfortable with the public honor and refuse to be the honorees. Some of the others have struck a bargain, maybe not stated but really obvious. They say I have X million dollars and will give it to your group but the name on the building will be mine. And then they are publicly honored for giving the money. I really wonder if they would give all that money to that particular group if they weren't getting the public honor.

I'm thinking of a particular yeshiva building. The person who gave the money for the building and whose name is on there doesn't particularly approve of the brand of frumkeit this school teaches and he doesn't practice it. The school tells its students not to become like the person who is giving the money. They don't approve of his religious group affiliation. And yet, money talks. When he had the money to give this was the place that offered the name on the building. Must have really galled the yeshiva when this person's name later also showed up on a building for a place the first yeshiva really doesn't approve of.

Anonymous said...

But we are told that the best way to give ha'koras ha'tov is publicly. So if someone gives a yeshiva money they are obligated to honor him as a thank you for the good he did for them.

I'll agree though that some of the men whose names have been all over the Jewish papers lately are not people we ought to be giving kovod to. Some of them sound like people who are making a big deal out of nothing just so their names will get in front of the public.