Turns of Praise
Accepting Central Synagogue’s annual Shofar Award for my lifetime of activism, I found myself intrigued and perplexed by the language of adulation
I keep a sign on my wall that says, “There’s no limit to the good you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Despite being grateful for the awards I’ve received, I don’t need credit, in the sense of having my name engraved on a plaque, or with the promise of an award, to motivate my efforts. What I do need, however, is praise from the people I care about.
Organizations are often ridiculed for hosting testimonial dinners for prominent businessmen—and they are mostly men—not because they are saints or scholars but because they can help the organization sell tables. But that misses the point. We don’t honor rich people for making their money; we honor them for giving it away. And by bestowing a plaque or naming something after them, we valorize tzedakah, charity in the service of justice, a holy enterprise.
Besides philanthropy, we also award success and talent, accomplishments that cast a positive light on our people, individuals whose wealth or service has contributed to the well-being of the Jewish community or the world at large. With our choice of honorees and the words on our plaques and prizes, we telegraph our values.
But there’s a difference between honor and praise. Honor happens in community. An award is a public expression of kavod, or respect, and may be given to someone whom few in the sponsoring group know personally. Whether it recognizes achievement or acts of kindness, acknowledging merit with a formal presentation shines a spotlight on exemplary behavior and proclaims it worthy of emulation by others. Groups could FedEx a plaque to its recipient, but they don’t because to be effective honor needs an audience, collective consciousness, applause.
Praise, on the other hand, happens in relationship, one human being to another. Born of intimate knowledge, praise has a deeper, more enduring impact than encomiums inscribed on a plaque. When conferred by someone we love and respect, praise provides affirmation, reassurance, guidance, esteem, and inspiration. Moreover, praise lauds qualities in us that others don’t necessarily see; it recognizes our progress, not just our ultimate achievement. Those who know us well know where we started, not just where we ended up. Their praise holds our history.
The Torah has many words for praise: Besides kavod or kabed—honor, make weighty, glorify—there’s hallal, from which we get hallelujah, which means shine, boast, show, rave, or celebrate. There’s todah, “an extension of the hand in adoration.” Shabach, “to shout, to triumph.” Barak or baruch, “kneel down; bless as an act of adoration.” Zamar, “pluck an instrument or sing joyful praise.” Tehillah evokes praiseful hymns of the spirit. Gadal means “enlarge, increase in estate, honor or pride, advance, magnify, promote, speak proudly of.” Nasah, “lift, exalt, extol, hold, up, regard, respect.” In Pirke Avot, or The Ethics of the Fathers, five different nouns are used in relation to praise—not just kavod and tovah, honor and goodness, but also sekhar, or reward, p’ras, or prize, and zekhut, or merit.
On Friday nights, in observant Jewish families, husbands are supposed to recite to their wives Eishet Chayil, or “A Woman of Valor,” from the Book of Proverbs. I think it’s fine to honor one’s wife with this ancient, if not always relevant, tribute, but shouldn’t each of us praise our partner more than once a week? And shouldn’t our praise be more particular—not a ritualized recitation but a personal response to a specific act of boldness or brilliance, strength or patience, devotion or daring?
I admit to being a praise-junkie; I thrive when those closest to me affirm that my efforts made a difference to them, enhanced their life, or advanced our common goals. I’ve been hooked on praise since my mother first told me that the earrings I made for her out of tiny seashells and screw-backs from the hobby shop were as beautiful as anything in her jewelry box. She died when I was 15, but her praise has stayed with me, emboldening and nourishing me all these years.
To say that human beings can live without honor but can’t thrive without praise is to acknowledge a craving we seem to have inherited from the greatest praise-aholic of them all. Our siddur is full of encomiums to what Prof. Yochanan Muffs calls “the divine ego.” To wit: “You took us out of Egypt.” “You work wonders.” “Yours is the majesty and the might.” “Awesome is Your name in all creation.”
The kaddish, a study in hyperbolic redundancy, declares, “Magnified and sanctified be your name. May your name be blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, hallowed, mighty, upraised and lauded.”
In Psalms, the divine ego is salved in lyrical poetry and graphic metaphors: “You, O Lord, are a shield about me.” ”You slap all my enemies in the face; You break the teeth of the wicked.” “You are my rock and my fortress.” “You doom those who speak lies.” ”Your righteousness is eternal.”
Psalm 6 has the supplicant pleading for mercy on the grounds that “there is no praise of You among the dead.” In other words, “Keep me alive or you’ll lose a fan.”
If we are created in God’s image and God needs all that positive reinforcement, it’s no wonder we’re hooked. But how many of us bestow praise as often as we crave it? When I was growing up in Queens, I often went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner with her parents and three brothers. After the candles were lit and the blessings said, every member of the family praised each of the other members for something positive that he or she had done during the course of that week, an enviable tradition.
Positive thoughts don’t do anyone any good if they remain unspoken. Ask yourself: Are you too cool to sing someone’s praises? Too busy to remark upon a loved one’s best qualities? Do you speak aloud the praise words you’re already thinking—your pleasure at a child’s unique insight, the way your beloved makes you feel, the attributes you most cherish in a friend? Do you say how much you admire a colleague’s prose, how kind your son was to that homeless person, how cleverly your daughter solved that problem? Do you express your appreciation for a teacher’s creativity, a rabbi’s wisdom, a neighbor’s availability, a sibling’s company in the dark, a parent’s efforts to balance work and family, a grandparent’s legacy?
If your answers to those questions are what you want them to be, kal ha’kavod, more power to you. If not, it’s never too late to praise the praiseworthy.
This essay is adapted from the acceptance speech Pogrebin delivered at Central Synagogue in New York City on Nov. 11, 2011, upon receipt of its Shofar Award for her activism.