Back in May, I was reading the portions of the Yiskor service where we were saying the prayers for the dead, the souls of people we had lost in the previous year. I came on a word that made me stop, as I remembered the word used in another ceremony in another context. It was the word honor. “May his rest be honorable; may her rest be honorable.” And at the end of the Passover Seder: “Give us honorable work.” This means that our sages understood that honorable work is a signal privilege and that we might sometimes have to work at jobs that might be less than honorable or that we might have to live part of our lives as people we wouldn’t wish to be for the sake of supporting those whom we have made vows or people to whom we owe our lives. It’s a great gift, honorable work to do. Crime does pay; sometimes it pays damn well. Ask cousin Bernie who is now having his hair styled by a trustee. At one time cousin Bernie used a better cologne than most of us could afford, but there’s smelling . . . and smelling.
This word, honor, spoken by our sages exalts the virtue of work and reminds us that the sages of old, Maimonides, Rashi, Rambam, and BimBom all had jobs and did their saging on the side. The work they did was honorable and they knew enough to value it for its own worth.
We have, in the Tanach, proof that living in honor makes lives well lived. Two situations are the same; a widow, poor, needy, and childless comes to a relative and says, “Give me a child so that I can have the arm of a family in status and support.” That was vital in the days before welfare departments and food stamps. Case one: Onan, in Genesis. Tamara, his sister-in-law, needs the legitimacy of a status as family member. Onan “spills his seed on the ground,” the act of saying, “I would rather destroy what I have than save your life with it.” People who see this text as being about masturbation are looking too far below the suspenders. It’s about miserliness and mean spiritedness and it reeks of dishonor. Compare this with Boaz, in the book of Ruth. A poor widow, childless, is given the support of her mother-in-law’s kinsman, who, through his obedience to the laws that forbid miserliness, was generous and openhearted. He achieves honor and fathers a lineage that ends in King David. David lived a better story. Boaz lived a better life. Onan became a by-word and misinterpreted at that.
Honor isn’t a word we use much these days, and when it is used, it’s often to its own dishonor: “honor killings,” even “honorable mention,” which can be sort of soggy when there are only four people competing. Honor systems are sometimes asking for the wrong kind of loyalty and so are often not honored. Most of my students admit to cheating now and then when such cheating might save their scholarships. At least I need to praise their honesty. Some shrug because they don’t care enough about honor to let its loss bother them.
God is a good prayer, our wits tell us, but a slow one. Give us honorable work and let us lie down in honor.