How can it be that an infinite G-d, Who has no needs, created this world just so that we mortals would give Him honor?
Because part of what I do is write about things news-related, I often think about the two ways, broadly speaking, for a Jew to process and react to events taking place in the world at large. On the surface at least, these approaches seem to be opposites.
One way is to react with disdain or disregard, devaluing anything that happens outside of our Jewish world. The other is to attach a certain value to what one observes and to find the lesson within it.
To illustrate these divergent responses, let us consider the recent events surrounding the passing of the British queen and her son’s subsequent elevation to the throne. Both of these rare events were marked by pageantry and pomp the likes of which few of us alive today have ever witnessed.
The ancient rites observed in intricate detail amid the ornate trappings of royalty — the bejeweled vestments, the solemn processions replete with elaborately costumed officials, horsemen and the flourish of trumpets — were all designed to bestow high honor upon the deceased queen and her heir. But even more, they were a way of paying homage to the institution of the monarchy itself and the momentous passing of the scepter from one generation to the next.
It’s not hard to look at this cynically and say, “All this honor, and for what?” We can easily deride the ceremony and circumstance as just that — an empty, overdone display of undeserved tribute to mere mortals, glittering to the eye but devoid of any deeper meaning. We can look down our noses, dismiss the entire thing and move on.
But then again, perhaps it is indeed too easy to simply deride all the ceremony and circumstance. If we stop and reconsider, we can look at the episode through very different eyes, deeply Jewish ones, too. We can find in its details the outlines of the Torah concept of kavod, and come away personally enriched.
Kavod is actually quite a big deal in Yiddishkeit. Not the kind of honor paid to a building donor or dinner honoree, but that which is owed to the Creator of Heaven and Earth. As the Mishnah in Avos (6:11) teaches, “All that Hakadosh Baruch Hu created in His world, He created only for His honor, as Yeshayah himself states (43:4), Kol hanikra vishmi v’lichvodi beraasiv, y’tzartiv af asisiv.”
Yet when we first encounter the centrality of Hashem’s honor in the scheme of things, we might wonder: Don’t Chazal cast kavod in a decidedly negative light? The very same Pirkei Avos states that kavod is one of three drives, along with jealousy and lust, which can actually take a person out of this world.
And, in any event, how can it be that an infinite G-d, Who has no needs, created this world just so that we mortals would give Him honor? And can the piddling honorifics of puny mortals possibly mean anything to Him, anyway?
But then we open the siddur and read these words in the first brachah of Krias Shema: “Tov yatzar kavod l’shmo — the Good fashioned honor for His name,” and we begin to understand. Honor is not an intrinsically bad thing. Indeed, it has a very important, even vital role — the very purpose of Creation itself. It just depends upon whom the honor is being shown and why.
Kavod, the seforim explain, is related to k’veidus, weightiness. To give honor to something or someone is to attribute weight and worth to it/them.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu isn’t just good; He’s The Good, the only One worthy of being called simply “Tov,” because He encompasses all that is good. And so, “Tov yatzar kavod l’shmo” expresses the idea that He created the universe in order that everything it contains will proclaim the honor of — that is, give the greatest weight to — His Name: The Good, the Source of all goodness.
And in so doing, we too partake of that goodness. Hakadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t need this honor — we do. It enables us to rise above our human limitations and be connected to The Good.
The various types of honor that we are required to give as Jews are all variations on this theme. The kavod due parents, talmidei chachamim, elderly people, a shul — all are in essence ways to attach significance to a concept, an ideal that is embodied in a person or object. And these too are given not to benefit the recipient, but to make us, those who bestow it, better people.
However, when we look at the world around us, “honor” has for the most part a very different, far less honorable meaning. It is merely a way to stroke the ego of the honoree, to fill a void within him that hungers for acclaim, while also allowing the one granting the honor to curry favor with him. This kind of “honor” is actually a response to human weakness.
But even in our very material world, there are exceptions, where the honor accorded begins to assume a spiritual form. When people come together to pay tribute to those who’ve fallen in the line of duty, as soldiers or policemen and firefighters and first responders, that’s honor for an ideal. It stems from the need of those bestowing it to respond to human greatness rather than from the need of the recipient to appease his human weakness.
And then there is the display of honor for a monarch like that which recently held much of the world in thrall. It was as close as human beings come to giving honor for honor’s sake, not to satisfy someone’s ego needs nor even to recognize achievement, but simply to honor that which is intrinsically deserving of honor. And if we are attuned to realizing what we are seeing, it can give us an inkling of what true honor really is.
Is there a justification to look upon all that pomp with cynicism, even derision? Chazal teach, “All leitzanus is prohibited, except for leitzanus regarding idolatry.” Leitzanus is a precision instrument, perfect for deservedly knocking avodah zarah, whether literal or metaphorical, off its societal pedestal. Whether it’s idol worship or modern-day heresies or the veneration of the god of Mammon, well-placed ridicule is what’s needed to puncture the aura of reverence and lay bare inanities.
And yet, we need to proceed with caution. It can be tempting to lump everything going on in the world into the category of “avodah zarah” and unleash the barbs of leitzanus bearing Chazal’s supposed hechsher.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner observes (Pachad Yitzchok, Purim 1:5) that leitzanusa d’avodah zarah shares nothing in common with other forms of mockery. The latter are rooted in a nihilistic denial of all significance. The derision we direct toward avodah zarah, in contrast, is specifically rooted in granting chashivus, significance, to the things that truly deserve it. By taunting idolatry, we deprive it of the ill-gotten respect it usurped from all that is holy and return it to where it rightfully belongs.
Hashem created a world full of natural wonders, brimming with opportunities to gain inspiration and awe (a la Perek Shirah). But there’s also a world of humanity, filled with untold billions of actions and interactions, foibles and triumphs, past history and current events. And that world, too, is filled everywhere we look with metaphors for spiritual truths, which can teach us so much if we are attuned to looking for them. But if we blithely wave away all that occurs in the world as just so much nonsense that can’t possibly possess any deeper meaning, we’ll never access those truths.
Perhaps there’s a superficially good feeling of superiority when we are dismissive of everything beyond our narrow context. But, as Rav Hutner taught, genuine leitzanusa d’avodah zarah flows not from pure zilzul, but from chashivus for the emes. Why, then, not take note of events to discern lessons that can only enhance our sense of chashivus for what is good and true? —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 932. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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