By Rabbi Kelilah Miller
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, presents us with a long list of specifications for the vestments of the priests, who will serve in the mishkan (tabernacle) once it is completed.
It is packed with excruciating detail, with no narrative to speak of. It is pretty inhospitable to the reader, refusing to offer any whiff of pathos or drama. Reading Tetzaveh can feel like looking out over a barren, featureless desert landscape.
But, if you have ever hiked in a desert, you also know that there are secrets everywhere. Someone familiar with the desert will know which scrub plants or geological features indicate underground water; likewise, we can seek out strange turns of phrase in the text which suggest that there is some nourishing insight hidden beneath.
Classically, midrash (biblical interpretation) requires just such a “hook” in the text — some oddity of language, expression or image that invites us to dig a bit deeper. Sometimes the Torah portions that seem barren expose these oddities more readily because of the very monotony of the landscape.
In that spirit, I want to examine a single small section of the reading, which describes the robe of the High Priest. According to Exodus 28:33-35, the robe is meant to be decorated with tiny bells:
“On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around. … Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the LORD and when he goes out — that he may not die.”
It seems, on the face of it, that the Torah is suggesting that Aaron is required to wear these bells as he walks, so that he does not catch God unaware. And, indeed, the classical rabbis amplify this idea in order to teach a lesson in social etiquette:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: The man who enters his own house or, needless to say, the house of his fellow man unexpectedly, the Holy One hates, and I too do not exactly love him. Rav said: Do not enter your Own City nor even your own home unexpectedly. When Rabbi Yochanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of Rabbi Hanina, he would first clear his throat, in keeping with [the verse] so that the sound is heard when he comes in (Exodus 28:35).”
This is a lovely social lesson, and interesting in its own right, but it raises a theological problem — does God really not anticipate Aaron’s approach? Does Aaron really need to be “belled” like a cat in order to avoid startling the divine? One response to this problem is posed by the medieval Spanish commentator Bahya ben Asher:
Actually, the sound of the bells was not meant to give warning either to the shechinah (divine presence) or to the angels that the High Priest was approaching. It was intended to warn the angels that the approaching High Priest desired to have privacy during his audience with the shechinah.
In an interesting reversal, Bahya ben Asher suggests that the bells are not added to protect the privacy of God, but rather to protect the privacy of the relationship between Aaron and God. There is something so intimate about the encounter between them in these moments that even the ministering angels are asked to leave and “give them the room.”
This interpretation is in keeping with a long Jewish tradition of imagining the relationship between humans, God and angels as one that is sometimes fraught. There are many tales of angels complaining about the intimacy that human beings enjoy with God, despite our moral failings and general unworthiness.
The repeated lesson of these tales is that it is precisely our complexity and our failings that make us the beneficiaries of God’s intimate attention. Angels, who are already perfect, do not need God’s intimacy.
There is something so lovely and important about this perspective on our connection with God. God’s attentiveness to us is not based on our worth, but is a response to our need. We don’t get what we deserve, but we get what we require in order to become better. God’s love is a chesed (kindness), not a prize.
As a rabbi educator, I frequently encounter the “bad kids” — the ones who act out or disrupt lessons with challenging questions. I confess that I often love these students the best, since I can most easily sense their need for connection, empathy and community (although most of them would not admit it). It is often only in one-on-one encounters that these students are able to share what is on their minds and in their hearts.
As we spend time with this week’s Torah portion, I pray that we all find compassionate listeners who love us despite, or even because of our flaws. And I pray that we all listen closely for the tinkling of tiny bells — the small indications that our love and attention are needed by others.
Rabbi Kelilah Miller serves as the cantor-educator at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.