Kavod–Honor: Making an Effort

Sources from essay by Rabbi Nancy Wechsler in The Mussar Torah Commentary

Kavod is usually translated "honor" or "dignity." Kol hakavod is enthusiastically exclaimed when someone has done something of worth. The root of kavod carries other meanings as well, like "sweeping" (as in sweeping the floors to treat a place honorably), "liver" (the organ credited to purifying the body's blood), and "heavy." This single root contains nuances of purification, cleaning up, heavy lifting— and as a result of the effort, "honor." Kavod does not come by osmosis; it takes muscle. Kavod demands that we muster our energy, clear away the clutter, and like a weight lifter, breathe into raising the weighted barbell high above our heads.

-Rabbi Nancy Wechsler

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃ (ב) וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאׇזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃ (ג) וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹן֮ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה֒ וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֵלָ֗יו כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽעִבְרִ֔ים עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י שַׁלַּ֥ח עַמִּ֖י וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי׃
(1) Then יהוה said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, (2) and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am יהוה.” (3) So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says יהוה, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go that they may worship Me.

In most cases, "go" is any movement away from the speaker, whereas "come" is any movement toward the speaker. To whom shall Moses come? To God, we suppose, for "I," the speaker, is God, who has hardened Pharaoh's heart. Does that mean that God is where Pharaoh is? Does that mean that there is a breath of godliness even within Pharaoh, the incarnation of cruelty and arrogance? Does the same spark of God that lives in everyone and everything also live in Pharaoh? Apparently so. Might giving Pharaoh some kavod turn things around?

-Rabbi Nancy Wechsler

(א)...אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א ב) כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלּוּ:

(1) ...Who is honorable? One who honors others as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (I Samuel 2:30).

Judaism teaches that honor is something we give to others, which in turn makes us honorable. Why is Pharaoh worthy of being honored? The answer, I believe, can be found in Moses's childhood. Pharaoh's daughter found baby Moses in the basket floating down the Nile. She rescued him to avoid the Pharaonic ruling of killing every male Jewish child. Pharaoh could have kept his ruling in place and decreed Moses's death. Yet, Moses lived and was raised with riches in the palace, guided through life by none other than Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus 2), Apparently, Pharaoh had decided to spare that one little boy and let him live. That single decision made Moses's life and all his deeds possible. It was ultimately Pharaoh, not his daughter, who saved the life of Moses. To give honor to Pharaoh, to "come" to him, requires "sweeping away" everything but that one fact. Merciless cruelty and humiliation to the Israclites- swept aside in that moment; fear of being killed swept aside: Pharaoh saved his life, and in that moment, nothing else matters.

-Rabbi Nancy Wechsler

וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״וְלֹא קָרַב זֶה אֶל זֶה כׇּל הַלָּיְלָה״ — בִּקְּשׁוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לוֹמַר שִׁירָה, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם, וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה?

And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: “And they called out to each other and said” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.

It seems that our tradition is of two minds when it comes to kavod. On the one hand, we are commanded to celebrate our redemption from our enemies, which we might call "kavod to self?" Ar the same time, we are commanded to feel empathy for other human beings— including our enemies—and lift them up with kavod, too, that is, "honoring others." Therefore, it is possible to learn in Proverbs, on the one hand, "When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy" (Proverbs 11:10), and on the other hand, "If your enemy falls, do not exult" (Proverbs 24:17). We live with this dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough; but if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened.

-Rabbi Nancy Wechsler

(ח) ר' נחוניא בן הקנה אומר, תדע לך כח התשובה בא וראה מפרעה מלך מצרים שמרד בצור עליון הרבה מאד שנ' מי ה' אשר אשמע בקולו ובלשון שחטא בו בלשון עשה תשובה שנ' מי כמוך באלים ה' מי כמוך נאדר בקדש והצילו הב"ה בין המתים מניין שלא מת שנ' כי עתה שלחתי את ידי ואך אותך ואולם בעבור זאת העמדתיך וכו' והלך ומלך בננוה והיו אנשי נינוה כותבים מכתבי עמל וגוזלים איש את ריעהו ובאים איש על רעהו במשכב זכור ובא אצלו מעשיהם הרעים וכששלח הב"ה ליונה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מכסאו וקרע בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר והכריז בכל עמו שיצומו כל העם שני ימים וכל מי שיעשה את הדברים הללו ישרף באש מה עשה העמיד האנשים מצד אחד והנשים מצד אחר וכל בהמה טהורה מצד אחר והילדים רואים את אמותיהם ורוצין לינק ובוכין ואמותיהם רואים את בניהם ורוצים להניקם ובוכות הילדים ק"כ אלף וג' אלפים הרבה משנים עשר רבוא שנ' ואני לא אחוס על נינוה העיר הגדולה ארבעים שנה האריך אפו עמהם כנגד ארבעים יום ששלח את יונה ולאחר ארבעים שנה שבו למעשיהם הרעים הרבה מן הראשונים ונבלעו כמתים בשאול תחתיה שנ' מעיר מתים ינאקו.

(8) Rabbi Nechunia, son of Haḳḳanah, said: Know thou the power of repentance. Come and see from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who rebelled most grievously against the Rock, the Most High, as it is said, "Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto his voice?" (Ex. 5:2). In the same terms of speech in which he sinned, he repented, as it is said "Who is like thee, O Lord, among the mighty?" (Ex. 15:11). The Holy One, blessed be He, delivered him from amongst the dead. Whence (do we know) that he died? Because it is said, "For now I had put forth my hand, and smitten thee" (Ex. 9:15). He went and ruled in Nineveh. The men of Nineveh were writing fraudulent deeds, and everyone robbed his neighbour, and they committed sodomy, and such-like wicked actions. When the Holy One, blessed be He, sent for Jonah, to prophesy against (the city) its destruction, Pharaoh hearkened and arose from his throne, rent his garments and clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, and had a proclamation made to all his people, that all the people should fast for two days, || and all who did these (wicked) things should be burnt by fire...For forty years was the Holy One, blessed be He, slow to anger with them, corresponding to the forty days during which He had sent Jonah. After forty years they returned to their many evil deeds, more so than their former ones, and they were swallowed up like the dead, in the lowest Sheol, as it is said, "Out of the city of the dead they groan" (Job 24:12).

Thus, in the Rabbinic reading of the story of the Reed Sea, Pharaoh does not die, but flees and eventually becomes the king of Nineveh. When the prophet Jonah arrives in the city, the king of Nineveh (who is the old Pharaoh) immediately initiates a national repentance movement.? Thus, Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of change, and an example for all of us on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we read and learn his story. Kavod means to honor someone by lifting them up. Sometimes, the weight is heavy. Still, the process has the potential to purify ourselves and others, raising us all.

-Rabbi Nancy Wechsler

Questions to Ask

  • What has been the result of a situation in which you have shown kavod toward another person? What kind of acknowledgment for another person strengthens the best within you?

  • What is the benefit of showing kavod toward another person even when you do not respect them?

  • How do its various connotations ("sweeping away," "the purifying liver," and "something of weight") change your understanding of kavod?