This week the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is commanded in sartorial law. The Torah instructs the creation of eight intricate garments that must be worn at all times by Ahron. Each vestment functions on a specific spiritual level. One, however, seems to also have a mundane raison dêtre.
The Torah instructs the Kohen Gadol to wear a Me’il , a four cornered blue-wool garment worn like a sandwich-sign. The hem of this majestic robe was adorned with an alternating array of 72 functioning gold bells and small pomegranates. Unlike most of the vestments, where the Torah just commands what to sew, the Torah explains the purpose of the Me’il. Exodus 28:34 “Its sound (i.e., the bells) shall be heard upon entering the Sanctuary before Hashem.” The Torah continues to tell us that if the Kohen Gadol dares enter the sanctuary without that bell adorned garment, he is subject to a decree of untimely death.
It is nearly impossible to fathom divine reasoning for each vestment. The written Torah does not give an explicit explanation as to why the Kohen must wear the belts, tunics, and turbans. Yet when it tells us about the bells at the bottom of the Me’il it justifies their existence with a very mundane reason. “Its sound shall be heard upon entering the Sanctuary before Hashem.” Our sages explain that the Torah is teaching a moral lesson: one should announce himself before entering any room.
I am amazed. Does Hashem, who knows every mortal’s move, have a “knock before entering” sign on the doorway of His sanctuary? Why, of all places, is this the place to teach etiquette? Couldn’t the Torah have found more mundane whereabouts to direct the people about proper behavior upon entering a room?
The young widow who entered Reb Shlomo Zalman’s* study was obviously distraught. In addition to the loneliness and pain she experienced, a sense of urgency was about her. She had recurring pangs of guilt. She wanted to do something spiritual to memorialize her dear husband. Perhaps she should establish a free loan fund or contribute books to the Yeshiva library. Or perhaps there was an act of spiritual self-improvement that she should perform.
Reb Shlomo Zalman waited till she finished and then instructed her to listen to his advice very carefully. “I understand your need to do something spiritual as a tikkun (uplift) for your husband’s soul. This is my advice to you. Go out and buy some toys for your children, take them to the park and enjoy life with them. Forget the quest for the great spiritual tikkun and help your children rejoice in life. That will bring the greatest tikkun for your husband.”
The Kohen’s bells teach us all a great lesson. Upon entering the Holy of Holies, the Kohen’s thoughts may become so focused on attaining the high level of spirituality that he may forget simple courtesy. He may forget to knock before entering.The Torah tells us that the search for spirituality can never supersede simple etiquette. We often have dreams and lofty spiritual goals. How many toes do we step upon to achieve them? How many doors do we burst through to prescribe our morals to inattentive ears?
This week the Torah tells us that even the High Priest — the holiest of mortals — as he converges on the Kodesh HaKodoshim — the holiest of places — in the quest to perform the most spiritual of Judaic rites — must remember one simple thing. It is the same thing that the poor farmer must remember before trudging into his home: basic courtesy. Don’t forget to knock. And the foremost place to teach us that lesson is the Holy of Holies. Good Shabbos!
* Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) was one of the foremost Torah Scholars of our generation. Dean of Yeshiva Kol Torah, his Halachic rulings guided thousands world over. This story is adapted from And From Jerusalem his Word c 1995 Hanoch Teller, N.Y.C. Pub Co.
This issue is dedicated in loving memory Nochum Moshe ben Yosef
by Sam & Ingrid Davies and Family
Text Copyright © 1996 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.