Honor looks beyond the outward circumstances and behavior of our fellow human beings to see the divine image in each one: “Every one a holy being.” This understanding of human nature doesn’t seem to come to us easily. We’re ready to ignore, discredit, mock, and malign people around us, according to our own needs and prejudices.
Rachel, an elderly friend of ours, recently went into a serious decline, one that looked like it might be her last. She said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but made it very clear that she didn’t want to be left alone during the process. Since Rachel doesn’t have any family in town, my wife Jane spent the night and several hours the next day with her, until her niece arrived. After Rachel’s niece had been there for the afternoon, she needed to be spelled for a couple of hours to get something to eat, so I covered for her. When she came back to the hospital, she thanked me for taking the time to be with Rachel. I said, “It’s a mitzvah; it’s a privilege to sit with your aunt during this time.”
It really is a privilege to be with someone as they approach death, or to attend or conduct a funeral afterwards. In the presence of death, as all the outward trappings fall away—the small talk, the preoccupation with this or that problem, and even good things like energy and exuberance—we can often sense more clearly the holiness of the soul that had been obscured by all these things.
In a setting like this, we’d never think of dishonoring the other person. The point, however, is to recognize the holiness of the other person, regardless of appearances or circumstances to the contrary, before he or she reaches the final stages of life.
A Hasidic story tells of a prominent rabbi who was once riding into a shtetl when a notably ugly and misshapen Jewish man greeted him along the roadside. The rabbi, who must have been in an unusually bad mood, greeted the poor Jew with the words, “And are all the men of this village as ugly as you?” “I don’t know,” said the man. “You’ll have to take that up with the One who made me in his image.” The rabbi was immediately shamed and asked the man’s forgiveness. (Paraphrased from Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.)
Honor—deference, respect, simple kindness—toward all whom we meet goes a long way toward fulfilling “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is an essential part of “love Hashem your God with all your heart.” Honor recognizes what we are often quick to ignore, the holiness of all who are created in God’s image.