The High Priest’s robe

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Tetzaveh

We all strive for inner tranquility. When we are productive and feel good about ourselves, life seems easier; however, when we are plagued by regrets and unfulfilled desires, an unsettling static reverberates from within the void.

Between the lines of the recent Torah passages appears an intriguing dialogue about these two states. In one of the most pivotal scenes, the High Priest — the Kohen Gadol — dressed in his eight unique garments, enters the holy place in the Temple as a messenger of the Jewish people. Each of these garments was crucial, symbolic and possessed a special power in achieving atonement. Here, we will focus on one garment — the robe — and its broader significance.

When describing the robe, the Torah relates the following instruction: “And on its bottom hem you shall make pomegranate (shaped balls) …all around and golden bells in their midst…It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service and its sound shall be heard whenhe enters the Kodesh, the holy chamber, before the Lord … so that he will not die.” (Exodus 28:33)

Bells and pomegranates

When examining the verse, there is a disagreement between two primary biblical commentators as to the instruction about where to place the bells. The divergence stems from the Hebrew word “b’tocham,”which can mean either “between them” or “within them.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), the foremost commentator on the Torah and Talmud, understands the phrase as “between”: A golden bell was attached between each two pomegranates hanging on the hem of the robe. But Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) believes that the bells were literally placed within the pomegranates.

Inserting bells inside the rounded “pomegranates” — to bang against their walls — makes sense, given the instruction to make these ornaments hollow. But according to Rashi, the ringing of the bells was generated from the clappers inside the bell itself; the hollow pomegranates were, therefore, purely decorative. For this reason, Nachmanides takes issue with that approach: “Having hollow pomegranates served no function then,” he writes. “And if they were only for beauty, they should have been made like golden apples ….”

While his argument about functionality is compelling — why bother making each pomegranate hollow if nothing was placed inside them? — his additional comment about golden apples is cryptic, prompting investigation by later scholars. What did he mean with that phrase?

Some suggest a reference to the menorah, made from pure gold, whose branches were decorated with “goblets, knobs and flowers.” There, knobs resembled apples, whose sole purpose was for beauty. Nachmanides, therefore, understands that in creating the sanctuary’s accessories, the decorative fruit of choice was the apple. But this only begs the question: Why apples? And why then, if apples represent beauty, does Rashi prefer the pomegranates?

Noise is necessary

To answer this, let’s examine a detail in the above verse instructing the Kohen Gadol: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the holy place….” Why was it so important to hear the bells jingle — to the point that success of the High Priest depended on this noise? Seemingly, in such an intimate setting, designed to achieve atonement, “a still silent voice” (Kings 19:12) would be more appropriate.

The simple reason for the sound, the commentaries explain, is to show respect for the moment, making sure not to enter a holy site suddenly, mindlessly or unannounced. The jingling bells are like a visitor asking permission to enter “the king’s chamber.” The deeper explanation of the clattering relates to the overall function of the Kohen Gadol, seen as a messenger of the Jewish people, taking with him, so to speak, the entire nation into the holy chamber.

Spiritual noise and silence symbolize two states. Noise reflects the process of repentance, the cry of those feeling distant from G-d. Silence, on the other hand, reflects a feeling of closeness. When one is content and progressing smoothly, there is no inner tension. The soul is calm. But attempting to change — the struggle to leave behind sins — creates a restless noise inside, which must be expressed.

(This idea is reminiscent of a story: A fellow once came to the Baal Shem Tov and asked disparagingly: “Why are some of your disciples so loud while praying? They shout, they move their arms, they walk around the room. Is this the appropriate way to commune with the Almighty?”

“Tell me,” the Baal Shem Tov answered him, “did you ever see someone drowning in the sea and lying quietly? He shouts, he thrashes among the waves that threaten to overtake him. Surely nobody would poke fun at that person for moving intensely. So too, prayer is the attempt to break free of the engulfing waters of our material existence that threaten to drown out the voice of the soul and extinguish our spiritual flame.”)

In this sense, the jingling of the bells is symbolic of those people engaged in an ongoing struggle to come closer to G-d while in a dark and confusing world. Consequently, when approaching the holy place, seeking to gain atonement on behalf of the entire Jewish people, it was essential that the Kohen Gadol provide an accurate symbolic representation of the entire spectrum of the community — the righteous and holy, those soundless in their service together with the imperfect, who rise and fall. (The only exception is Yom Kippur, where people become like angels and the essential untainted bond with G-d is revealed.)

The beauty of struggle

With these images in mind, we can discover a more profound dialogue between Nachmanides — “if only for beauty, make them apples” — and Rashi, who in this case prefers pomegranates.

Both the golden apple and the pomegranate are used to describe the Jewish people. (“Like an apple among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved” and “Your lips are like a thread of scarlet and your mouth is comely; your temple is like a piece of pomegranate within your locks” (Song of Songs). But while the apple represents Israel in the most virtuous state, the pomegranate refers to the “empty ones amongst you.”

So, perhaps their disagreement is philosophical as well as practical — is true beauty in the struggle to improve, or in attaining excellence?

Rashi, the simple commentary, chooses to emphasize the external aspect of the human being, marked by complexity, but full of potential goodness (like a pomegranate is compartmentalized, with its many sweet seeds embedded in a fleshy outer layer). Specifically, those who feel far, regarded as being on the lower spiritual level, are represented by this hollow fruit shape, placed on the bottom hem — yet even they will go along with the High Priest into the holy chamber. Indeed, there is an advantage in tension over smooth spiritual progression. The rise and fall, the constant effort needed to improve, eventually breaks barriers and exposes the limitless power of the soul.

Nachmanides, who incorporates more esoteric mystical ideas into his commentary, chooses instead to focus on the deepest dimension within the person — the pristine and unblemished state, removed from all sin. “If for beauty and not functionality,” he argues, “make them like golden apples, full and sweet.” He points to the apples on the seven branches of the menorah, representing the seven holy pathways in serving G-d.

Applications

In the digital era, now more than ever, we find ourselves bombarded by distracting sounds and sights in the world, vying for our attention at every turn. This incessant barrage only serves to exacerbate internal turmoil and presents a formidable obstacle to mindfulness and contentment. Amid constant distractions, the needs of the soul often go unnoticed. Similarly, the depth and richness of Judaism can be overshadowed, as the nature of holiness is to remain modest, while the style of negative energy clamors to summon our focus with flashy displays.

In previous generations, when Jewish life illuminated the streets and education was actively pursued, with minds less prone to overconsumption of meaningless pleasures or entertainments, there was less urgency to create positive noise. However, in today’s world, inundated with vain vibrations and disturbing images, it becomes imperative to learn how to generate more beautiful noise, raising the volume of holiness to counteract its opposite. This involves demonstrating increased creativity and enthusiasm in our love for Torah, the people and land of Israel and in celebrating Jewish life.

This message from the weekly portion also aligns with the current month of Adar, as declared in the Talmud: “When Adar enters, we must increase in joy.” One effective method to achieve this elevation is through heightened external expressions such as singing, dancing and laughter, all of which convey happiness and contribute to creating positive noise that also uplifts those around you.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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