Sunday, January 24, 2021

Portion Beshallach: Honor/Kavod

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One—They said: “I will sing to the Holy One, who has triumphed gloriously! God has hurled horse and driver into the sea!”
(Exodus 15:1)

At the time (of the destruction of the Egyptian at the Sea of Reeds) the ministering angels desired to recite a song before God.  But the Holy One said to them: My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked. Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina says: God does not rejoice in their downfall, but God does allow others to express joy.                                    (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)

How do we respond to the demise of our enemies?  

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, raises this ever-relevant question and refrains from offering simplistic answers.

Many of us know the midrash where God rebukes the angels for singing as the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea; it is featured in many of our Pesach seders, cited as we take ten drops of wine from our cup to remember each of the plagues, a reminder that our joy at liberation should be diminished by the suffering of others.  But this is only half of the story—for while God does silence the angels, God does not object to the Israelites’ victory song, which revels in the death of our oppressors.  Indeed, God seems to take pleasure as we chant triumphantly, “They went down into the depths like a stone!”  Liberal Jews tend to focus on the angels’ silence much more than our ancestors’ song.  The idea of rejoicing in the death of our enemies embarrasses us, because it feels primitive and violent.  Yet I believe it is wrong to completely ignore or deny the joy we feel when our adversaries fall.  


In the Musssar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Nancy Wechlser ponders the events at the Red Sea as a reflection upon the midah of honor, which is known in Hebrew as kavod.  She writes: “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.”  At 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.”  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.”  To rejoice is to honor our own commitments and high ideals.  To temper our rejoicing is to honor every human being as intrinsically due a sense of dignity.


In the chapters on honor in his book Every Day, Holy Day, Alan Morinis offers the key phrase/affirmation: Each one, holy soul.  It would be nice if the phrase read, Each good one, holy soul.  But as Morinis notes, every human being is created in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of honor—including our adversaries.  Indeed, this is the real challenge with kavod.  It’s relatively easy to honor people that we love and respect; the true test lies in learning to honor those whose actions cause us grief.  We should fight hard for our own highest ideals, and we are not required to our enemies—for we are not angels—but we should strive to remember that they, too, are children of the Holy One, and honor them accordingly.

Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Give kavod/honor to someone without expectation to receive in return.  Give honor to a person with whom you do not have an easy relationship.  Notice what happens.

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