The theme of this week is noise.
When we are productive and feel good about ourselves, life is easier. When we feel we messed up, life becomes more difficult. An unfulfilled soul, plagued by regrets, detects a resounding static coming from within.
Spiritual noise and silence symbolize two states. Noise reflects the process of repentance, the cry of those feeling distant from God. Silence, on the other hand, reflects a feeling of closeness. When one is content and progressing smoothly, there is no inner-conflict. The soul is calm. But attempting to change — amidst the struggle to leave behind sins — creates a restless noise inside, which must be expressed.
Between the lines of the recent Torah passages appears an interesting dialogue about these two states. In one of the most pivotal scenes, the High Priest — the Kohen Gadol — dressed in his eight specific garments, enters the holy place in the Temple as a messenger of the Jewish people. Each of these garments is crucial, symbolic, and possesses a special power in achieving atonement.
Here, we will examine one garment — the robe — and its broader significance. When describing the robe, the Torah relates the following: “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 when he enters the Kodesh, the holy chamber, before the Lord…so that he will not die.” (Exodus 27:33-35)
Bells and Pomegranates
When examining the verse, there is a disagreement between two primary biblical commentators as to where the bells should be placed. The divergence stems from the Hebrew word b’tocham, which can mean either “between them” or, more literally, “within them.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), the foremost commentator on the Torah and Talmud, understands the phrase as “between.” Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) disagrees and believes that the bells were literally placed within the pomegranates.
Inserting bells inside the rounded ornaments — to bang against their walls — makes sense, given the instruction to make the pomegranates hollow. But, according to Rashi, the ringing was generated from the clappers within the bells, and thus the hollow pomegranates were 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.
And why, according to Rashi, was the robe beautified with pomegranates?
Noise is necessary
Let’s examine the following: “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 the 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 commentaries explain that sound shows respect for the moment, ensuring that entrance into a holy site doesn’t take place mindlessly or unannounced. The jingling bells are similar to a visitor asking permission to enter the king’s chamber. The more profound explanation relates to the overall function of the Kohen Gadol, seen as a messenger of the Jewish people, taking with him the entire nation into the holy chamber.
In this sense, the jingling of the bells is symbolic of those people engaged in an ongoing struggle to improve — to come closer to God 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 beauty of struggle
With these images in mind, we can discover a more profound dialogue between Nachmanides, who favors apples, and Rashi, who prefers pomegranates. Both the golden apple and pomegranate describe the Jewish people throughout the Bible. However, while the apple represents Israel in the most virtuous state, the pomegranate refers to the “empty ones amongst you.”
So, is true beauty in the struggle to improve, or in attaining excellence?
Rashi chooses to emphasize the external aspect of the human being, marked by complexity, but full of goodness. Specifically, those who face an inner void, and are regarded as being on the lower spiritual level, are represented by the hollow fruit shape, on the bottom hem. Yet even they will go with the High Priest into the holy chamber. Indeed, there is an advantage in the tension over smooth spiritual progression and contentment. The rise and fall, the consistent 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, focuses on the deeper 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.”
Applications for today
These days, we are bombarded by negative noise of the outside world, screaming for our attention at every turn. This, in turn, adds to the inner noise and makes it harder to hear to what’s going on inside. These distractions mean that the soul’s needs often are unnoticed and neglected. Likewise, the depth and richness of Judaism are quiet.
In previous generations, there was not as much need to create positive noise. These days, however, we must learn to generate more beautiful noise, raising the sound of holiness by showing more creativity and enthusiasm in our love for Torah, the remarkable land of Israel, and in celebrating Jewish life.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.
The theme of this week is noise.