(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...mitrachek min hakavod, avoiding honor...
(Numbers 14:22) Ki kol ha'anashim haro'im et k'vodi v'et ototai asher asiti b'mitzrayim uvamidbar...v'lo shamu et koli; All those who saw My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness...and did not hearken to My voice [will not enter the land]...
I recently had a conversation with a very observant young man. I said to him, "I understand that you are shomer mitzvot (diligent about observance)." He responded, "I try my best to keep Shabbat and kashrut; the rest I could do a lot more." That's when I knew I had described him accurately.
There is no question that providing praise and honor to people will motivate them well. Praise and honor, especially when deserved, should be dispensed liberally. However, kavod is a powerful drug, and once it gets into the system, it is difficult indeed for the individual to avoid the cravings it can produce.
Part of the appeal of kavod is that it is a quality associated with God. When the presence of the Holy One is evident in our midst - whether in a natural phenomenon, an historic event or an expression of great love - we catch a glimpse of God's glory. That moment heightens our consciousness of the genuine greatness of our souls, imprinted with the image of God and created as a willful act of the One who spoke and brought the world into being.
Who would miss an opportunity to be reminded of our God-like aspects? When another of God's creations is willing to acknowledge my praiseworthiness, the part of me that is nurtured by that honor rushes to absorb it. Of course, just as part of me is God-like, part of me is not so God-like. The contrast between the rush of kavod and the every-day aspects of human existence can cause quite a letdown. Withdrawal is severe; it highlights the distance between our divine components and our baser components.
In the modern idiom, we speak not in terms of a sense of deprivation of God's presence motivating our quest for kavod. We use a much more accessible term: ego-gratification. Being in the company of greatness makes us feel great. We seek out acknowledgment for our generous acts, our prominent acquaintances, our momentary erudition, our past accomplishments. (I recently realized how often I introduce myself as friend or rabbi of someone I presume will impress a stranger, as if that proximity is some sort of personal credential.)
God's reflected glory is a dangerous thing. Being in its presence addles the mind into believing that, having been a part of that kavod, we now possess it. The Israelites who witnessed God's power in Egypt - plagues and redemption - and in the wilderness - salvation, revelation and sustenance - believed themselves to be deserving of power and judgment equal to God. They could reject the Promised Land or the instructions about how to conduct themselves. Once they had heard God's voice, they did not need to listen to it any more.
That all sounds very dramatic and very Biblical, which means it also sounds very distant from contemporary life. On the contrary - it is the story of Jewish history in general and of Conservative Judaism today in particular. The logic goes like this: we are the heirs to a long and proud history of Jewish survival, beneficiaries of the remarkable rebirth of the State of Israel and the virtually unbounded blessings of Jewish life in America. We are therefore equipped to choose to preserve or abandon instructions attributed to God institutionally and personally. After all, I know in my heart that I am a Jew and no one can take that away from me.
The roar of the great honor of being in covenant with God - a covenant we have witnessed first-hand and vicariously - has drowned out the sound of God's voice. We mistake being the beneficiary of kavod with being the agent of kavod.
We all tell our kids to stay away from drugs; a former first lady famously proclaimed, "Just Say No!" That approach was pretty simplistic and not as easy as she made it sound, but she wasn't off the mark by much with the more pervasively seductive prevalence of honor-addiction. Doing what we should because it is the right thing to do opens us to hearing God's voice - the voice of Torah. Doing what we do for the honor or the glory (the same word in Hebrew) may deny us the very blessings we seek.
The modest young man I mentioned before desired no credit for his observance; he wanted only to continue to hear God's voice. Whether ritually or ethically, it is an attitude we should all aspire to cultivate.
How can you begin to become mitrachek min hakavod? Do something very generous and do it as anonymously as possible. Help a stranger with your time or resources. Solicit others to volunteer their time or resources for a good cause. In a discussion with friends or classmates, when you have an insight, hold your peace and allow someone else the privilege of inspiring others. In doing so, God's glory will be manifest, rather than your own.