This week’s parsha describes in detail the garb the Kohen had to wear while performing his priestly functions. The purpose of these garments, as explained in the Torah, is “for honor and glory” (Exod. 28:2). If you use any of the wonderful learning aids available today, you can see for yourself in full color how dignified and elegant the Kohen must have looked.
As we read through all the required garb we suddenly come upon a strange requirement—that bells should be attached to the bottom of his tunic. Bells? This is certainly a departure from the royal dignity which characterizes the rest of his clothing. Never has a king, or any dignitary, attached noisy little bells to his garments!
The Ramban concludes that the reason for this is distinct from that for the rest of the garments, and is given in the text itself: so that “its sound will be heard as he approaches the holy place” (28:35). This, explains the Ramban further, is because it is proper etiquette in general to announces oneself before entering a room, by knocking on the door or by making some other form of noise. Hence the bells would ring as the Kohen entered the Holy Place.
In fact, as the Talmud (Pesachim 112) says, one of the seven important instructions R’ Akiva gave to his son R’ Yehoshua was never to enter even his own home without warning, and, even more so, the home of a neighbor. The Rashbam explains that R’ Akiva learned this from the bells the Kohen wore.
Let us try to understand this: we can understand why it would not be right to barge into someone’s home, even our own. It could startle or embarrass someone. But how could any of this apply to G-d? How could He not be ready to receive the Kohen in the Sanctuary?
The answer, I believe, is that this is not at all for the sake of G-d, but for our own sake! It should go against one’s grain to violate a rule of “derech eretz” (good manners) under any circumstances, even where there are no bad consequences on the recipient’s side. One must always be a “mensh”.
Society seems to forgive certain behavior on the part of our greatest leaders in science or politics. How can someone who is busy finding a cure for AIDS, or organizing an important peace conference, be expected to remember to wipe his feet before walking on the carpet? Many great artists and composers have been known for their short tempers and rudeness, but this “artistic temperament” has usually been accepted as the price others have had to pay for the brilliance the artist was sharing with them. Such scientists, statesmen and artists were considered to be above the usual demands of common courtesy. In the Torah world too this can happen. We can become so engrossed in the big issues of study, prayer and meditation that we lose sight of little areas of social sensitivity.
To all this, the bells of the Kohen ring out an answer. Here we can have the holiest man (the Kohen Gadol) in the holiest place in the world (the Kodesh Kedoshim) on the holiest day of the year (Yom Kippur), who is deep in his thoughts in a world of his own, when suddenly the bells ring to remind him that even he, at such a time and in such a place, must notice the world in which he lives and be sensitive to even the most trivial rules of derech eretz.
When the Steipler Rav of blessed memory passed away, many stories began to circulate about this great genius and tzaddik. One story that stuck in my mind was the following.
There was once a Bar Mitzvah celebration in the Lederman Shul in Bnei Brak. The guests were enjoying themselves when suddenly the Steipler entered the shul! They all jumped to their feet in respect, wondering what he was doing there, and watched in astonishment as the Steipler walked over to the Bar Mitzvah boy and asked him for forgiveness. The lad, shaking, had no idea what the tzaddik meant until he explained.
A year previously, on Yom Kippur, the Steipler had seen the boy in the synagogue, reading from a very large book. He went over to the boy and told him gently that although it is very commendable to study the Talmud, on Yom Kippur one should really be spending one’s time in prayer. The boy blushed, and timidly showed the Steipler that the book he was holding was not a Talmud, but indeed a very large Machzor (a chazan’s edition). They both returned to their seats, but the Steipler was disturbed. He felt that he had embarrassed the boy unnecessarily (even though he had spoken gently to him), and wanted to beg his forgiveness. However, the boy, being a minor, was not halachically capable of granting such forgiveness, and so the Steipler made a note of the incident, and a year later appeared at the boy’s Bar Mitzvah to ask his forgiveness!
The Steipler was the Gadol Hador. People crossed oceans to receive his blessings, and there was not an area of the Talmud in which he was not an expert. And yet, he did not feel that all this greatness exempted him from such trivialities. The reason is that he realized that such “trivialities” are not at all trivial! It was precisely the Steipler’s attention to such matters that made him the great and holy man he was.