BELLS ON THE ROBE
There were many little bells on the hem of the kohen gadol’s robe. The Talmud says (Z’vachim 88b) that there were 72 bells, 36 on each side; another view says 36, 18 on each side.
The rabbis thought the bells were there so that everyone would know where the high priest was. From this we learn that one should never burst in anywhere. Just as the high priest’s movements were tracked when he entered the Holy of Holies, so one should not enter any premises, not even one’s own house, without announcing their arrival (Lev. Rabbah 21:8); P’sachim 102a).
I had a personal concern during my rabbinate when though I kept my office door open, I felt invaded when a certain person used to walk straight in without knocking or otherwise announcing her arrival. I often had confidential papers on my desk and though this particular congregant would not deliberately read such papers, I preferred to put things away before anyone entered.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe had an additional take on the rule about bells. He said that the world ought to hear and see what Judaism had something to say about a major issue. The Jewish idea should never be kept under wraps but be brought into the open and expressed with bell-like resonance.
THE GARB OF LEADERSHIP
One of the priestly accoutrements was the ephod, which Rashi says was like an apron. Others think it was a kind of tunic fastened by shoulder straps.
The crucial thing was that the ephod and the accompanying garments marked out the kohen gadol from the rest of the people. The high priest had to look different, as a symbol of his special role and status.
The histories of Jewish costume by Alfred Rubens and others show how special garb was always associated with different kinds of spiritual leadership.
These days there are fewer rabbis than before who believe in rabbinic robes – the Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel being an exception to the “mufti” tendency. Personally I see a purpose in rabbinic robes, even though most of my colleagues seem to disagree with me.
Whatever one’s view on that issue, it must be pointed out that there is a rabbinic rule that no-one holding an official position should dress in untidy, unclean, scruffy fashion. When people look at the leader, he or she must at all times exemplify the rules in Psalm 19 about God’s Torah looking pure and unsullied.
Strangely, the name of Moses does not figure in this sidra. No “The Lord spoke to Moses”. No “And Moses went, stood, said, made, did”.
As the Ba’al HaTurim points out, it’s the only section of the Torah after his birth that does not mention Moses by name, though there is a hint of his existence and task in the opening word, “v’attah” – “and you” (Ex. 27:20). As we move into Chapter 28 there are more instances of the same phenomenon.
Explanations include the co-incidence that this week happens to be Moses’s Yahrzeit, 7 Adar. The Ba’al HaTurim links the omission with Moses’s call to God,
“If You won’t forgive the people’s sin, erase my name from Your Book” (Ex. 32:32).
Another place where we would expect Moses’s name but don’t get it is the Haggadah of Pesach.
There must be a deliberate policy behind these omissions. Possibly it is to prevent the rise of a Moses-cult. Even so – as with the beginning of B’reshit when the Torah says
“The spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen. 1:2)
– the spirit of Moses hovers all over the Torah. One can’t understand or appreciate the Torah without the (sometimes unspelled-out) thought of the great leader.
Similarly, all of us lesser individuals know that who we are and what makes us can’t be understood or appreciated without our background and personal history. Even if it isn’t spelled out, its influence hovers over our deeds.
YOU MAY HAVE ME AS A MEMBER
The Tabernacle is the subject of several sidrot at this time of year. Its every aspect – equipment, services and staffing – is set out in scrupulous detail. In order to focus the Divine presence and be the meeting place of the community of Israel, the Mikdash had to meet the most exacting requirements.
It is no wonder that later pious generations found immense depths of meaning in these sidrot.
The relationship between the Tabernacle and its congregation is one of the areas of perennial interest. Bound up with each other, their destinies intertwined, the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) and the people had mutual expectations – and were occasionally disappointed in each other.
The story has not changed over the ages. As successor to the sanctuary, the synagogue has often expected more from its congregation than they could offer; and, for their part, congregations were often angry with their synagogues when they seemed incapable of fulfilling the expectations of their members.
The problem rests partly on the frequent banality of the relationship. The synagogue looks to its members to fill in forms, pay dues, attend services and meetings; few make any religious demands, though some, more fortunately placed, are able to insist on at least basic Sh’mirat Shabbat. Members expect the synagogue to provide services, seats, staff and programs; many also expect shishi or shlishi as an acknowledgement of their membership status.
It all makes for good gossip over the Shabbat lunch table or, only too often, during the K’riat HaTorah. It makes shule politics one of the most absorbing, frustrating and fruitless pursuits that Jewish life has ever invented. But it misses the whole spiritual point.
Abraham Lincoln said a pertinent thing about churches, but the problem is little different with synagogues. The churches he knew may have had scriptural words inscribed above their doors; I presume so. Synagogues of course often do place Biblical verses over the entrance. In Hobart, for instance, the magnificent, classically proportioned synagogue, consecrated in 1845, bears the words from Sh’mot:
“In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, there will I come unto thee and bless thee.”
What did Lincoln say? “Build me a house of worship over the entrance to which is written,
‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might, and thy neighbour as thyself’, and you may have me as a member.”
The spiritual purpose and possibilities of the synagogue are not given a chance in many places. The clutter of petty organisation and the over-concentration on routines and chores get in the way. Whether I get shishimay be important to my vanity, but in the end it does not bring me closer to God. The lashon hara I pick up during a service may be entertaining enough to give me conversation material for days to come, but in the end it will not raise my sights or purify my soul.
My advice, after being a shule-goer all my life, is simple. Use the synagogue as a place for quiet thinking. Let your gaze roam upwards. Ponder the majesty of God and the magnificence of His creation. Look at yourself and find such potential there that you can hardly believe it.
Quietly glance at your shule neighbours and discover that each one, in his or her own way, really is a tzaddik doing their best to be upright and honourable and to keep their dignity despite all they have to contend with.
Find me a shule with that sort of congregation, and you may have me as a member.