In our parsha the Torah describes the priestly garments, including the robe worn by the Kohen Gadol. The robe is made of majestic blue thread, with golden bells and pomegranates decorating its edges. At the end of the description, the Torah commands: “It shall be upon Aharon for his service, and its sound (lit. “voice”) shall be heard when he comes into the Holy of Holies before God, and when he goes out, so that he shall not die”. The purpose of the golden bells and pomegranates is that when the Kohen enters the Holy of Holies their ringing will be heard; the Torah emphasizes that if the Kohen enters to perform the priestly service without his special garments, including the robe with its bells, he is deserving of the death penalty.
In general, we are accustomed to the idea of serving God with humility and modesty: “Doing justice and loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God”. The garments of the Kohen Gadol, however, are regal and majestic; they are radiate glory and splendour, because in this way we demonstrate the honor due to the Divine service. The ringing of the bells seems unrelated to this concept: we do not ring the bells for God’s glory or to indicate the time for prayer; rather, wherever the Kohen Gadol walks, the bells ring. How does this phenomenon demonstrate honor for God?
The commentaries discuss this question and offer several different explanations. Ramban and some others view the ringing as a sort of “notice” to God, as it were, when the Kohen enters – the elementary courtesy of knocking on the King’s door – and as a notice to the other kohanim when he emerges, as a sign of honor to the Kohen Gadol and his service. The Netziv and other commentaries understand the bells as a reminder for the Kohen as to Who he stands before, much like the function of tzitzit for all Jews.
The Yerushalmi Talmud (Yoma 38) suggests another interpretation, which at first seems surprising: “One who speaks ‘lashon ha-ra’ has no atonement, so the Torah establishes an atonement for him – the bells of the [Kohen’s] robe. “It shall be upon Aharon for his service, and its sound shall be heard” – let this sound (lit. “voice”) come and atone for that voice.”
Lashon ha-ra is a transgression against one’s fellow man. We would expect the atonement for this to somehow involve improving one’s relations with that person. How does the ringing of the bells atone for the social poison of ‘lashon ha-ra’?
The Sages are in fact teaching a profound lesson about how we should relate to the “voices” and communications around us. We are accustomed to a reality in which evil, deviant or peculiar behaviour is immediately awarded top rating. A person who goes about quietly doing good, neither trampling nor disturbing anyone along the way, is not an “item”. He is never the center of public attention. We pass him by without paying attention, without a second glance.
Douglas Adams once commented on this painful truth about what we listen to, in modern society:
“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.”
The high rating enjoyed by evil helps it to become an influential and guiding element of our reality. To correct this situation, the most senior servant of God amongst Am Yisrael wears a robe decorated with bells. His every step, his every movement, creates sound. This is meant to educate us to perceive the deeper truth that underlies the perverse capering of contemporary news and hype. The sounds of all the small, quiet actions of God’s servants are stronger and have more influence than all the busy, teeming ‘lashon ha-ra’ that fills the world.
“Let this ‘voice’ come and atone for that ‘voice’.”
May it be God’s will that we all merit to see and hear God’s voice, in all its strength and splendor, in every phenomenon – great and small, and in the bells of the robe of the Kohen Gadol.