Knock Before You Enter
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
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 arrival.
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
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 © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.