For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Rav Baruch Winetraub

Former Sgan Rosh Bet Medrash in Toronto (2011-2014) 
Currently Community Rabbi in Tel Mond
and  Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion

In recent years, technology companies have been trying to convince us that our clothes are not sophisticated enough. It’s not enough, they tell us, to have a phone in your pocket; You must have it in your watch. It’s not enough to have a remote controller for the air conditioner on the living room table – you need it to be connected to the button of your shirt; And especially it’s not enough to have a laptop – anyhow barely useable for its tiny size – you need it to be inside your glasses!

Here, as in many other trends, the Jews were there first. Thousands of years ago, while the people from which the designers of the IWatch will descend were still eating apples from the tree, we already used ‘Wearables’. This is what we read in this week’s parsha concerning the coat of the Cohen Gadol:
“And on its skirt you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson wool, on its bottom hem all around, and golden bells in their midst all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the bottom hem of the robe, all around. And it shall be on Aaron when he services, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy before Hashem, and when he leaves, so that he will not die.”

It is clear from the verses that the ringing of the bells is crucial – to the extent that entering without the bells can result in the Cohen’s death; But why are the bells so important? Why should he hear his voice when he enters the sanctuary?
The commentators gave different answers: Some wrote that the goal is to warn other people that the Cohen Gadol is coming; The Ramban suggested first that the bells were meant to warn the angles and alert them to the Cohen’s approach; as an alternative explanation he wrote the bells were for G-d’s honor, to show that we do not enter the sanctuary without prior notice, just as we do not enter the king’s palace without prior notice. But one difficulty still remains – why on the holiest of days, on Yom Kippur, entering the holiest of places – Kodesh Hakodashim, the Cohen entered without his bells?
To answer that, I would like to expand on the Avarbanel’s interpretation for the bell’s ring:
“For that voice will awaken him to observe that he is in the sanctuary”
The ringing of the bells, then, was not intended for G-d, nor was it intended for angels or other people. The bells toll for the High Priest himself, reminding him who is he and raising his awareness for his own commitments.

An old joke tells us of a rabbi who was approached by a crying Jew. Owning his landlord more than thousand gold rubles, and knowing there is no chance that he will be able to return them, the Jew was very afraid – if the landlord will throw him in jail, who knows what will happen to his family? The rabbi thinks for a moment, then asks the Jew if his landlord ever davens Mincha. Why, the Jew says, of course not. So, there is no fear, declares the Rav, he will never remember that you owe him!
The danger of distraction is a real danger that lurks for all of us, but for the High Priest it may be fatal – he must always remember who he is. The bells were meant as a constant reminder of his role and identity. Therefore, on Yom Kippur, he did not need the bells. On the most holy day, when one does not eat or drink, being completely absorbed in the day’s service, the Cohen is in no need for bells; his awareness is perfect.

This goal, of achieving high and constant awareness to the presence of G-d, is by no means limited to the Choen Gadol alone. It can, should and must, be the aspiration of any Jew – as Rambam formulates:
“[A] love-sick individual, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, the thought of her filling his heart at all times, when sitting down or rising up, when he is eating or drinking. Even more intense should be the love of G-d in the hearts of those who love Him. And this love should continually possess them, even as He commanded us in the phrase, “with all your heart and with all your soul”.

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