James Joyce famously incorporated multi-lingual puns into his stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Finnegans Wake. I have never even tried to read Finnegans Wake, but I’ve been thinking about a multi-lingual coincidence that might be a good pun … except it’s not very funny. There’s a striking similarity between the newly-coined word “COVID” and the ancient Hebrew word כָּבוֹד (“Kavod”), which means honor, respect, or dignity. But what does the COVID pandemic have to do with the fundamental Jewish value of Kavod? I’ll offer a few possible answers.
The pandemic is causing universal human suffering — the virus can be transmitted all too easily from any human being to any other human being, regardless of nationality, race, religion, or political party. Every nation on earth, every state in our nation, is affected; all of us are vulnerable. The COVID pandemic confirms that we’re all members of a single species — that we’re all equal in the sight of God, for better or for worse. It should be a wake-up call to remind us of the basic value of Kavod ha-Briyot — respect for all human beings. If all human beings are created equal, it follows that all of us are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. One of them is the right to Kavod — basic dignity. It follows that we all must honor others just as we expect to be honored ourselves.
COVID also reminds us that all of our fates are intertwined — and that’s part of Kavod too. I am obligated to wear a mask to protect you, just as the mask you wear protects me. And we’re all obligated to show the greatest Kavod to those who are most vulnerable to catching and suffering from the disease. COVID —and Kavod — make it all too clear that we are all in this together.
More somberly, both COVID and Kavod involve death and dying. One of the recurring themes in the High Holiday liturgy is to stress our fragility, our mortality. Life is finite, and therefore we need to live in the proper way. Because we are mortal and finite, our lives are precious to God. And just as people are entitled to respect during their lifetimes, they are entitled to respectful treatment after they die. Jewish funeral practices are rooted in the principle of Kavod ha-Met: respect for the dead. What better reminder of this principle than a worldwide pandemic?
Finally, Kavod is one of the basic attributes of God in the Bible and the liturgy. “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,” we say: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Ruler of the Multitudes of Heaven; the entire world is filled with the Kavod of the Creator!” The concept of divineKavod —meaning not just honor but vastness, weightiness, ultimate importance— is both terrifying and reassuring. Terrifying because it reminds us that we’re limited and we make mistakes, while God is infinite and all-encompassing. Our destinies are unpredictable and buffeted by random and bewildering forces that are beyond our control, while the Kavod of the Creator transcends all space and time. “You think you’re important? You’re not that important!” By acknowledging that the divine Kavod fills the universe, we remember that our own does not, and we learn to practice humility — another fundamental Jewish value.
At the same, the idea that the divine Kavod fills the universe may be comforting and uplifting. It means the world is not entirely random and meaningless. In some impalpable way that we can’t fully comprehend, we believe that the world does make sense; there is beauty in creation; some things are right and some are wrong no matter what culture or religion we come from; every human life has infinite value. As Jews, it’s our obligation to make the world more meaningful, more right and less wrong, more beautiful, more well-ordered, more caring. We have to live in a way that makes the divine Kavod fill the world as best we can.
And the COVID pandemic fills the world too. What a terrifying thought! But unlike Kavod, COVID will come to an end. Between basic precautions to stop the spread of the disease and the incredible efforts of scientists and those who support them to develop vaccines and cures, the entire worldwide family of humanity will unite to defeat the pandemic. Can we learn to be optimistic about our collective future as we enter a new year?