Ma’aseh sheyaha, as the Rabbis say — “Here’s a story for you.”
Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica — one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of Jewish books, sforim as they are known. Not the commercialized products reviewed in The New York Times, but arcane Hebrew texts from long ago that get newly reissued on occasion. With Passover arriving in a week, I decided also to buy a matzah tray for my kitchen table.
Noiach, the lovely man I deal with there, showed me several, one of them particularly beautiful, 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’kuv’d yontif,” in honor of the holiday.
“Yes,” he nodded, knowingly, “l’kuv’d yontif.”
I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuv’d” anything, maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents when I was little and still spoke the language. Whatever the case, the word l’kuv’d, which I hadn’t used in decades, somehow rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness — a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.
L’kuv’d is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew lichvod, “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere, however, in the Jewish conversation of the centuries and in all those sforim I mentioned. Lichvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the dead. “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 destroy places of idolatry, not for God’s sake, but because their existence is an embarrassment to the people who built them. We Jews are a culture of honor.
How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz chasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matzah tray by saying “l‘kuv’d yontif” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. Because both of us read and revere those sforim that he sells and I buy, we share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor — and we treat each other accordingly.
Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture of honor is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species” (the etrog, along with the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav). Those sforim that we Jews pour over liken them to the Jewish people, bound together as one despite our differences, lichvod Hashem, “in honor of God,” whose people we are.
In this culture of honor, we learn from one another. The very expression, “culture of honor” came from Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox leader in Riverdale, who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, an organization 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 Rosenblatt, is a culture of blame, where people cover their own faults by blaming others. It might also be a culture of nastiness or humiliation where we build ourselves up by tearing others down. But blame, nastiness and humiliation are not the Jewish way.
Shema Yisrael, we Jews say. And then: Baruch Shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed, which can be translated as “Blessed is the Name [of God]: the glory of His Kingdom is eternal. Or better: “The honor [that is typical] of His Kingdom is what is 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. n
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in New York. He is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Shabbat candles: 6:05 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 33:12-34:26; Numbers 29:17-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16
Havdalah: 7:04 p.m.