There’s always so much to comment on, but this week, my thoughts can be boiled down into trying to understand a single word: kavod. There are a half-dozen ways to translate it, and each of them brings a new flavor to both the word and the verses where the word appears.
The translation I worked from defined kavod as glory. Turns out, it’s not that simple. It can mean majesty, it can mean respect and honor, it can mean importance, weight, deference and heaviness. These definitions are differences with major distinctions, and I ended the study session strongly objecting to how my translation deployed glory.
My way to understand this one simple and mighty word began internally, with the recognition that I have experienced kavod without knowing it.
My wife and I honeymooned in Finland. It was somewhere different, somewhere cold (we like visiting cold places) and we both really wanted to see the aurora borealis phenomenon.
It’s not hard to find spectacular photos of the Northern Lights, but photos don’t capture the experience of seeing them. What photos fail to get, is that the Northern Lights are not just colors – they’re action. Solar winds hit the Earth’s “magnetosphere,” this collision energizes particles and those energized particles produce visible light: sheets of green, blue, yellow and purple gas-like waves that ripple across the sky, brightening and dimming at will. It is not enough to see the Northern Lights. It is an experience that you receive, and to do that, you have to be at the right latitude, in the right season, with the right weather.
In talking about kavod, I recognized two things. First, the Northern Lights are glorious and majestic. They are a celebration, an awesome natural fireworks display. But you are also in direct confrontation with Universal forces that exist so far beyond the scope of human activity, it’s almost a joke to discuss the two together. I remember feeling infinitely small; all human life felt infinitely small, in the face of this thing.
This is a terrifying realization, and I have to wonder if a big part of majesty is also horror.
(On the other hand, if no humans were around to observe and be awed by the Northern Lights, would they still be awe-some? Maybe human life is not so “infinitely small” at all.)
Let’s proceed back into the text:
At this point, Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been subjected to ten devastating plagues. They just begged the Israelites to leave, so the plagues might end.
So, first question, G-d already stiffened Egyptian hearts once. G-d does it again here. This verse makes it seem like the hearts are being stiffened specifically so the Egyptians will change their prior attitudes, pursue the Israelites, and die in the pursuit – and for what, to create glory for G-d?
(Our study group argued, I think compellingly, that the Egyptians had long-ago stiffened their own hearts, and G-d is now allowing them to reap their own consequences.)
I then have to ask about the phrase, “gain glory through.” What does that actually mean? A matter of plot, we know exactly what fate befalls the Egyptians. The sea is parted, the Israelites cross, the Egyptian military follows, the Israelites make it and the Egyptians are promptly annihilated by drowning – the waters fold right back up. Is all this destruction the vehicle by which G-d “gains glory?”
(I have to add that my study partner raised a great point, which is that you only sacrifice the things you care about, even love – or else, what’s the sacrifice?)
I thought about Maimonides’ second principle of faith, that G-d is “a Unity.” What about this verse glorifies a Unity? This passage is all about discontinuity and separation, one people hunting down another people who are escaping a life of cattle-like slavery, and then the hunters are, themselves, massacred. How does any of this reflect wholeness, or unification? Aren’t these more like the actions of a lawless, broken world?
Frankly, if we take G-d as Infinitely Before, and Infinitely After, etc., it is absolutely absurd to suggest that G-d has any use for gaining “glory” through wartime heroics. G-d’s glory is making this and all other words!
If we take G-d’s work here as majestic, and we take majesty as something that is as much fearsome and terrifying as it is beautiful, suddenly the multiplicity of kavod makes much more sense to me. I cannot accept a G-d who finds “glory” in a military bloodbath. But I can accept a G-d that can destroy greatly, and create greatly, and I accept that I can be deeply humbled in both directions at the same time.
(The group came up with one essential point – and I wish I could take credit for the thought, but I can’t! Fear does create change – but not lasting change. A person cannot consent to Torah by force. If I accept Torah out of fear of the consequences, am I accepting Torah, or am I simply abandoning my ability to choose to accept it? Fear alone cannot be the basis of a moral architecture.)
Speaking of moral architecture, I have one final point that keeps coming to me as I wade through Exodus.
All this death and destruction and slavery and violence is still pre-Torah. We have not yet been handed the words. So, I keep wondering if these verses are drawing a line between pre- and post-. Here is the world either before the moral structure of Torah, or a world that lacks the moral structure of Torah. And that world is shown to be a hideous place, full of violence, exploitation and degeneracy – a place desperately needing people who accept an obligation to reform it. Just a thought.