As babies, our small milestones garner praise and recognition: first smile, first laugh, first steps. The praise teaches us that we’ve done something wonderful. When it no longer dazzles those around us, we try something new. The positive attention we receive feels good, so we strive for more. Praise becomes the impetus for our actions. So, it’s no wonder that we continue to seek applause well into adulthood. We live in what psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, calls a meritorious society, an “American-Idol-type society that refuses to celebrate or lavish praise on individuals unless they’re judged exceptional.” It’s common to feel disappointed or even envious when witnessing someone else in the spotlight.
Whether we are accustomed to receiving recognition or not, we come to expect it, not just for our accomplishments, but also for our acts of kindness, charity, and righteousness. "We want recognition for what we do,” says Michael Berg in Secrets of the Bible, “and we're upset when we don't get it. The biblical portion of Toldot helps us understand just how powerfully this desire for recognition works against us."
Toldot tells the story of Rebecca and Isaac’s twin boys, Esau & Jacob. The twins fight over who would be first out of their mother's womb. Esau wins that battle and is the firstborn. As such, he is entitled to his father's blessing, which has spiritual significance. The blessing of a father to his firstborn child is like opening up an extra channel for Light to flow into his life.
The twins were polar opposites—Esau was large and hairy and grows up to be a hunter and a farmer. Jacob was pale and hairless, a man who “dwelled in tents,” meaning that he was more interested in study and prayer than life outdoors. Being a spiritual thinker, Jacob desires the blessing meant for the first-born and believes that his brother does not deserve the honor.
One day Esau arrives home from the field and notices that Jacob has a steaming pot of red lentil soup. He asks his brother, “May I have some soup, please? I am faint with hunger!”
“Sure,” says Jacob. “You can have this soup if you sell me your birthright.”
Esau replies, “If I die of starvation, what good is the right of first-born to me?” And with an oath, the blessing meant for Esau is sold to Jacob.
Esau was Isaac’s favored son, yet Jacob was Rebecca’s favorite. So, she bids Jacob to disguise himself so that he can receive the blessing from his ailing and blind father without upsetting him. When Esau learns of this he becomes enraged and promises to kill his brother.
Jacob was so eager to receive his father’s blessing and recognition that he acts dishonestly. He was not content with the Light he brought into his own life through payer and study. He wanted a blessing from his father. The desire for recognition can be just as strong a motivating factor as love or success. According to a study by Forbes Magazine, organizations that express their appreciation to their employees on a regular basis outperform those that do not by a large margin. Forbes claims that there is a $46 billion market for employee recognition, i.e., giving out awards, trinkets, watches, etc., a trend that reflects the pressure to strive for the exceptional.
Kabbalah teaches us that unrecognized acts of kindness are no less valuable. Hard work is still worth it. And perseverance will always be rewarded in the end. In fact, according to kabbalistic tradition, the highest form of charity is given anonymously. Acts of sharing bring more Light into the world when we resist our desire to make our goodness known. "Ideally,” says Michael Berg, “we should keep those who are not directly involved from knowing too much about our spiritual life—especially our acts of sharing—for anonymous good deeds reveal the most Light."
We live in a society that is hyper connected. Social media allows us to share our accomplishments and good deeds immediately, not only with our close circle of friends, but with acquaintances, friends we haven’t seen in years, and complete strangers. From landing a new job or running a marathon to potty training your toddler, post your big and small milestones online and you are bound to receive many congratulations. Would our accomplishments be any less significant if no one knew? Would the folks at the soup kitchen be any less appreciative if you didn’t post a picture of yourself feeding the homeless? Of course not.
Sharing is a powerful act and when we let go of our need for recognition, we allow ourselves to feel good from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. We don’t need anyone else to honor us for working hard or committing acts of kindness. Blessings will come to us whether anyone knows of our good deeds or not. Sharing is intrinsically valuable, not because it earns you an award, but because it brings more Light into the world and into the lives of those with whom we share.