Friday, January 1, 2010

happy new year--kol hakavod

A few days ago a high school friend who is now a "facebook friend" sent me a note. He wanted to know what my father's first name "is/was". I responded with the name and told Ira that both my father and mother were, fortunately, very much with us. Ira's response was "kol hakavod to both of your parents."

I'd no idea what kol hakavod meant, though I could get it--I thought--from context. But I wanted to make sure before I responded. I went to the internet and saw kol hakavod all over the place, but mostly it was in the context of person A saying to person B, "Kol hakavod". Again, I had a sense, but especially since I knew that Ira's dad had blown the shofar at the temple I infrequently attended as a kid, I didn't want to respond without knowing for sure what the phrase meant. I wrote to my friend Barry who, displaying his good natured wisenheimer humor, forwarded me the website-- Hebrew for Dummies. There I found the meaning of kol hakavod. It means, as one might expect, something akin to "congratulations".

So, I wrote back to Ira. The note went something like this:

"thanks for your message. My parents deserve kol hakavod more for the ethical way they've conducted their lives than their longevity. And" I continued, "I'm embarrassed to confess that I did not know what kol hakavod meant. I had to scurry around to find the definition before I responded.".

Ira's riposte,

"No need to be embarrassed for not knowing what Kol Hakavod means. You should be embarrassed only if you did not know what "ethical" meant."

The Cider House Rules is one of my favorite novels. It has stuck with me since the mid 80s when I read it and felt then that if the book did not deal with such a controversial subject (abortion) it should and would be on the reading lists of all high schools. In the novel, itinerant workers stay in a cider house during their time picking apples for a family in Maine. On the walls of their temporary home--the cider house--is a list of rules about how to behave inside the cider house.

The workers pay no attention to the rules and laugh at them. They claim that they did not make them and therefore these rules are irrelevant. The workers claim that they have to live by their own set of rules. Implicitly they contend that their successes and failures as humans are dependent on how they adhere to the moral compass that they have designed, rendering the cider house rules at best a set of suggestions--and at worst disorienting.

Today is New Year's Day. Time for resolutions. work out more, eat less, be more productive with one's time, are often at the top of the lists of those who make them. For me, the key on any day, new year's day or any other, is to live within the confines of my conscience. Not always successful, but to the extent that I can separate the cider house rules from the real ones, and adhere to the real ones, I know the meaning of ethical and deserve a kol hakavod.

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