This post is inspired by a passage studied in yesterday's Daf Yomi, Menachos 109b [see Rashi and Tosafot for more on an alternative edition]:
אמר ר' יהושע בן פרחיה בתחלה כל האומר עלה לה אני כופתו ונותנו לפני הארי עתה כל האומר לי לירד ממנה אני מטיל עליו קומקום של חמיןRabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah said: At first, had anyone told me, 'Ascend to authority,' I would have bound him up in front of a lion. Now [that I hold authority], if anyone would tell me to descend from authority, I would pour a pot of boiling water over him!
[There is much here, and quite a bit of it is subtle – note, for example, that to avoid holding authority the sage would have allowed someone to be harmed, but to avoid yielding authority he would have actively caused harm. ואכמ"ל.]
Why does the Rabbinate corrupt its holders?
1. Part of rabbinic corruption, certainly, is about wielding power, and power corrupting.
2. Part of it is that we come to believe the nice things people say about us. [Yes, people often do say nice things about rabbis...]
Last week I participated in a seminar at YU for incoming members of the Chicago and Toronto YU Torah miTzion kollelim. Rav Herschel Schachter addressed the avreichim regarding the responsibilities and pitfalls of Jewish communal service, and one of his topics was the issue of popular praise. Rav Schachter told a story in which Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg praised himself in front of a mirror; his own praise would feel empty, and he would become numb to praise from others as well.
Rav Schachter also told the story of a community rabbi who had become so convinced of his greatness that he once declared, "In my community, I am Reb Moshe [meaning, the equal of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein]!"
3. But even for those of us who don't enjoy power and who don't make the mistake of believing our own press clippings, the rabbinate is corrupting because praise is addictive.
I know that my learning, teaching, etc is highly overrated – and no, that's not humility, false or authentic – but I still feel good when flattered.
This is normal; we are hard-wired to be satisfied when people say nice things about us. But it's dangerous, because addictions need to be fed, and one who grows accustomed to praise can end up looking for more and greater things to do in order to attract people's positive reviews.
This happens to rabbis quite easily, and the results can include:
• Pushing ourselves to greater feats and heroics, which may well serve the community but which will carry a high price for one's self or one's family;
• Helping people who are more likely to offer praise, at the expense of others;
• On the other hand, going to excess to help people who don't offer praise, because their rare compliments bring greater satisfaction;
• Burning out when praise is not forthcoming, or is not commensurate with our efforts;
• Putting down others who are seen as competitors for the affections of the public, in order to build up one's self.
I don't think the solution is for rabbis to scowl at people who praise us; that's rude. And, as Pirkei Avos predicted, running away from praise just brings more of it. So how should a rabbi, or any community figure, deal with this?
Obviously, having a wise Rebbetzin/spouse is key. But I think a rabbi should take personal responsibility and remind himself that the satisfaction he receives from praise is only one of many positives in life, and should be viewed in a proper hierarchy of 'goods'. Yes, community praise is good. But so is time with your family. And so is giving honour to others. And so are anonymous acts of kindness. And so is taking a break every once in a while. And so on.
And now I turn to you: What else can a Rabbi, or any community figure, do to break the praise addiction?