Tetzaveh: Bells and Robes

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. -C. S. Lewis

“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron, your brother, for honor and for glory.”

One of the eight garments that the High Priest was expected to wear was a cloak with a distinctive detail in its design. At the bottom of the hem, it was decorated with small golden bells and pomegranates alternating with each other.

The torah specifies the purpose of this detail:

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate all the way round the skirts hold of the cloak this will be worn by Aaron as he serves in the temple so that the ringing of the bells will signal his approach as he comes into the century into the presence of God and as he departs and – he will not die.

 Rabenu Bachye suggests that Aaron’s entrance into the House of God is a blueprint for every individual of our people. As one enters the palace of a human King, a subject would be expected to act in a courteous respectful manor, giving notice of his approaching and would not enter unexpectedly. We find a striking similarity to this idea in the Story of Purim which coincides with the parashah of Tetzaveh.  King Achashverosh had an established law, that no one could approach the king uninvited any subject who dared to do so  would be put to death.

The High Priest on entering the holy of holies where G-d’s presence was manifest, was to do so with a deep consciousness of submission before the King of Kings. The golden bells on his cloak were to serve as a constant reminder of this submission. On the other hand, we have already mentioned that the very purpose of the clothing was to invest the High Priest with tremendous splendour of kingship, representative of the grandeur of the lofty position which he held.  In fact, our sages tell us that Achashverosh himself chose to wear the High Priest’s garments at his lavish 180-day banquet. He himself recognised that those garments   represented grandeur, power and aloofness and he saw a striking parallel between the positions that he and Aaron held. They both appeared to the uneducated, as looking the same, wearing the same royal garments. Yet beneath the surface, the High Priest was cognisant of his responsibility on standing in the presence of G-d, inwardly to remain humble and grounded.

It seems difficult to comprehend how the High Priest was expected to reconcile these dual aspects of his character. The splendour of the clothes he wore were to impress upon him to exhibit, power, grandeur and importance, and at the same time the bells  were to act as a constant reminder of his responsibility to conduct himself with utter humility and self-effacement.

There is an old Jewish joke:  

 What is the definition of a well-balanced Jew?

 The answer: One who has a chip on both his shoulders!!

There is a certain degree of truth in this joke, in that humans are sophisticated beings, full of inner contradictions and conflicts and yet  they are expected and challenged to strike a constant balance between differing sometimes conflicting emotions thoughts and character traits. The Torah draws this parallel in comparing the Jewish people to being   like the stars in heavens and yet also comparable to the dust of the earth. We are expected to be a modest nation and to remain grounded and yet know that the sky is the limit in terms of what we can achieve. Were it not for our self belief there is no question that as a nation and as individuals we would never have achieved anything like the extraordinary accomplishments that we have succeeded in.   Maimonides it was, who stated in Ethics of the Fathers, that if a person looks at himself as a lowly individual, he will not consider any [negative] act to be beneath his dignity. Believing oneself to be capable of greatness and sanctity ensures he says, one will not lower his standards.

 Two of the greatest iconoclasts in Jewish history were undoubtedly   Abraham and Moses both in their inimitable way changed the face of humanity. It was Abraham who introduced monotheism to the world, Moses was the conduit for the Divine Revelation and Receiving of  the Torah. Both Moses and Abraham despite their extraordinary accomplishments were renowned for being exceptionally humble. Abraham compared himself to being the “dust of the earth” and Moses said “who am I to go Pharaoh?”  Yet despite them being self-effacing and paragons of humility, both Abraham and Moses had extraordinary self-belief and self-confidence to audaciously   argue with G-d. Abraham argued with G-d to advocate on their behalf in attempting to save residents of  Sodom, Moses argued with G-d after the Golden calf to save the Jewish people from destruction. How could they be humble and at the same time courageously  argue with the Master of the Universe?

The hallmark of our people and exemplified by our leaders, is the ability to perfectly balance between self belief on the one hand and humility on the other. To achieve this balance, it is necessary for us to see ourselves like the High Priest poised to enter the Holy of Holies, full of confidence, grandeur and self belief but this confidence is qualified and refined by an awareness that we are constantly standing in the presence of G-d. When we recognise our G-d given talents as just that, then we remain full of humility as well as self-belief and can take on the world.

In days gone by pre war the ethical masters instructed that their students keep a piece of paper in each of their pockets. In one would be written a statement by our sages : “the world was created for me” and in the other,  was written in Yiddish I am a nothing. The strategy was to provide their students with that constant reminder as to the balance we are expected to strike throughout our lives.

This delicate balance was most beautifully illustrated by a story of involving one of the greatest halachic authorities to grace our shores that of Dayan Abramsky who was the Av Beth Din Pre-War.

When a shochet who had been fired sued the London Beth Din in secular court, Rav Abramsky was called to testify. After establishing Rav Abramsky’s name and position, his attorney asked, “Is it true that you are the greatest living halachic authority on the European continent?”

“Yes,” Rav Abramsky replied. “It’s true.”

“Rabbi Abramsky,” the judge said sharply, “isn’t some humility in order?”

“Your honour,” the Rav replied, “I am under oath.”

The priestly robes adorned with the bells of the High priest’s vestments are the perfect yardstick ensuring we maintain the right balance in our lives. The priestly robes, remind us that we ensure we should never   lose consciousness of the splendour of the robes one is wearing, the pride in who we are as Jews,  of the way of life that one has chosen, but at the very same time on the other hand we are expected to never lose sight of the keen awareness of the presence of G-d that shames one of  any honour that these robes attract to the person.

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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