Knock Before You Enter
By Rabbi Naftali Reich
Few sights were more spectacular than the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest,
resplendent in full golden regalia, his vestments formed from the finest
fabrics, precious metals and rare jewels. It was a vision of pure artistry
and unimaginable beauty. And little wonder. What else would one expect from
an ensemble designed down to its smallest detail by the Master of the
Universe Himself? But the beauty of the priestly vestments went beyond
simple esthetics. They glowed with inner spiritual incandescence, each
intricate detail laden with secret mystical significance, each element
essential to the efficacy of the Kohen Gadol as the perfect conduit between
the Jewish people and Hashem.
What was the purpose of all the individual features of the vestments
mentioned in this week’s portion? The Torah only spells out the purpose of
one of them. The Kohen Gadol wore a four-cornered robe of blue wool whose
hem was adorned with alternating golden pomegranates and bells. Why bells?
Because “its sound should be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before
Hashem.” Apparently this is a very important feature of the robe, because
the Torah metes out a severe punishment for the omission of the bells. Our
Sages understood that the bells are meant to teach us basic decency and
decorum, that we must not invade the privacy of others by injecting
ourselves into their presence without warning. Proper etiquette is to knock
on the door before entering. Just as the bells announced the Kohen Gadol’s
arrival in the Sanctuary so must we announce ourselves wherever we go and
not barge in unexpectedly.
Nonetheless, the questions remain. Surely, Hashem knows perfectly well when
the Kohen Gadol is approaching, regardless of whether or not he is preceded
by the tinkling of bells. Why then does the Torah choose to teach us this
lesson in this particular setting? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to
teach us this lesson in a more mundane setting involving ordinary people who
can be caught unawares?
The commentators explain that the Torah is teaching us an additional lesson
here, a lesson of critical importance. We might think that in the pursuit of
high spiritual goals it is acceptable to bend the rules of simple decency a
little bit. Not so, says the Torah. Even at the supernal moment when the
Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holiest, the closest point of contact between
a mortal and the Master of the Universe, he must still remember the rules of
basic decency. He must wear bells upon the hem of his robe to announce his
A group of young scholars traveled to the distant academy of a great sage.
They studied diligently before embarking on the journey and arrived with
high hopes of being accepted as his disciples.
The sage welcomed each of them individually and spoke with him at length on
a wide variety of topics. On the last day, all the young men were invited to
join the sage at his table to share his bread and listen to his words of wisdom.
The young men entered the sage’s house, hung up their coats and washed their
hands before coming to the table. For several hours, they were transported
to a world of transcendent wisdom and mysticism, and their hearts were set
afire with the yearning to become part of this world.
The next day, the sage announced his decision. He accepted all the
applicants, except for one. The rejected young man, who was quite a
brilliant fellow, was devastated. With tears streaming down his face, he
came to the sage and begged for an explanation.
“It is really quite simple,” said the sage. “When you washed your hands
before coming to my table you looked around for a towel but couldn’t find
one. Instead, you wiped your hands on a coat that belonged to one of your
friends. Being in a hurry to hear words of wisdom does not exempt you from
the rules of simple decency. If you were a true scholar, you would have
understood this yourself. I’m very sorry, young man, but you have no place
in my academy.”
In our own lives, we often get caught up in our daily urgencies, and
sometimes, this leads us to overlook the rules of simple decency and
courtesy. If we are late for an appointment, we rationalize, then it is all
right to elbow our way through a crowd or drive a little more aggressively
than we normally would. Let us remember, therefore, that nothing was more
important than the Kohen Gadol entering the Holy of Holies, and yet the
rules of simple decency always took precedence.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.