Culture of honor

Culture of honor

Sukkot | Exodus 33:12-34:26

Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica — one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of s’forim, Jewish books, arcane texts from long ago that occasionally get reissued. With Passover near, I decided also to buy a new matza tray. 

Noiach, the lovely man I dealt with, showed me a beautiful one, but so beyond my budget that I opted for something plainer and less expensive. As he began wrapping it, however, I changed my mind. 

“No,” I said. “I’ll take the expensive one, l’kuvid yontif” — literally, “in honor of the holiday.”

“Yes,” he nodded, “l’kuvid yontif.” 

I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuvid” anything — maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents. But the word, which I hadn’t used in decades, rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness — a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.

L’kuvid is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew lihvod, “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere in Jewish conversation through the centuries and in all those s’forim. Lihvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the deceased. “Honor” is what Torah commands us to show parents and teachers. Embarrassing people is forbidden because it contravenes k’vod habriyot (“the honor due God’s creatures”). We Jews are a culture of honor. 

How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz hasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matza tray by saying l’kuvid yontif,” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. We share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor — and treat each other accordingly. 

Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species”: the etrog and the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav. Those s’forim liken them to the Jewish people bound together as one despite our differences lihvod Hashem — “in honor of God,” whose people we are. 

In this culture, we learn from one another. The expression “culture of honor” came from Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox rabbi who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, dedicated to transforming synagogues into moral and spiritual centers for the 21st century. We shared insight, music, and learning across denominations because as different as we are, we all insist that what God wants for organizational life, and for relationships generally, is honor. 

The opposite of a culture of honor, says Rabbi Rosenbaum, is a culture of blame —covering one’s own faults by blaming others — or a culture of nastiness or humiliation — building oneself up by tearing others down. 

Sh’ma Yisrael, we Jews say; and then: Baruch shem k’vod malhuto l’olam va’ed, “Blessed is the name [of God]: the glory of his kingdom is eternal”; or better: “The honor [typical] of his kingdom is what’s lasting.” To be a Jew is to construct together a culture that models what the world can be: However much we differ, we treat each other with honor.

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