Thursday, March 5, 2009

Knock Knock. Table Talk for Tetzaveh 5769

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruitment and Special Projects, Orot College of Education

To download a printable version of this Devar Torah, click here.

My son, who attends a weekly chug that concentrates on logic and thinking games, came home with the following brain-teaser:
A certain thief was terrorizing a neighborhood. Yet, despite repeated attempts to catch the thief, he always managed to elude them. One day he heard the police knocking on his front door. He quickly jumped out the window and checked himself into the most upscale hotel in town, where he went back to work. Again our thief, a master of disguise, avoided hotel security and soon terrorized most of wealthiest hotel guests. Before long, the wealthy clientele, tired to being robbed blind, began to leave the hotel.
One woman, Mrs. Thompson, refused to leave. "I am not afraid of thieves," she said, remaining at the hotel. One morning she heard a knock at her door, and when she answered, a well-dressed businessman stood in the threshold. "Oh, so sorry," he told her, "I thought this was my room."
As soon as he closed the door, Mrs. Thompson called hotel security. "The thief," she said, "just came to my door. He's riding the elevator down to the lobby as we speak."
Security caught the man and after a short interrogation, he confessed to his crimes. The hotel manager, relieved to finally catch the thief, visited Mrs. Thompson in her room with a token of appreciation from the hotel for her quick thinking.
"I have to ask you," he said to her, "how did you know that he was the thief?"
How did she know? And more importantly for our purposes, if the people in our story followed parshat hashavua (and specifically Parshat Tetzaveh), she would never have known. Why not?

Among the eight vestments (that's a fancy word for clothes) that the Kohen Gadol wore during his avodah in the Mishkan, the me'il – the coat of blue, served at least two distinct purposes. First and foremost, the techelet of the coat contrasted the Kohen Gadol from the distinct white garments of the other kohanim. But the coat had an auditory feature as well. The Torah tells us:

וּפַעֲמֹנֵי זָהָב בְּתוֹכָם, סָבִיב. פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן, פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן, עַל-שׁוּלֵי הַמְּעִיל, סָבִיב. וְהָיָה עַל-אַהֲרֹן, לְשָׁרֵת; וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה' וּבְצֵאתוֹ--וְלֹא יָמוּת).שמות לב:לג-לה)
And bells of gold between them round about: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the skirts of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before Hashem, and when he comes out, that he die not.
Why did the coat have bells? Why were the bells so important that their sound prevented the death of the Kohen Gadol? Commentators offer different explanations.
Rashi interprets the "lifesaving" quality not on the me'il, but on all of the bigdei kehunah. Indeed, a Kohen may not serve in the Beit Hamikdash missing any of the bigdei kehunah under the threat of the death penalty. (And you thought that the dress code at your place of work was harsh.) Yet, most commentators apply the threat specifically to the sounds of the me'il.
Rashbam explains that on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had to be the only person in the Beit Hamikdash during the avodah. The bells on the lip of his coat would warn any kohanim present of the approaching Kohen Gadol, giving them sufficient time to stay away. Thus, the bells served as a kind of protective warning system to keep danger at bay. Ibn Ezra suggests that the chimes of the bells formed a part of the Kohen Gadol's prayer, providing a "background" music track to augment his personal tefillah to Hashem. Chizkuni raises the possibility that the bells alerted those around him to the presence of the Kohen Gadol, not as a warning, but to allow them to know when he performed the service in the Beit Hamikdash, so that they could focus together with him. Rashbam also allows that the bells served simply as another way to distinguish between the Kohen Gadol and the other kohanim.
Each of these explanations gives us a different understanding of the purpose of the bells. But the gemara in Pesachim (112a) provides a different interpretation that offers a practical lesson for each of us that we can and should implement in our daily lives. The Gemara lists seven lessons that Rabbi Akiva taught his son, Rabbi Yehushua. Among them,
ואל תכנס לביתך פתאום, כל שכן לבית חבירך
And you should not suddenly enter you own home, and certainly your friend's home.
Why not? Rashbam explains,
השמע את קולך להם דילמא עבדי מילתא דצניעותא. [בויקרא רבה] ר' יוחנן כי הוה עייל לביתא מנענע משום שנאמר "ונשמע קולו בבואו אל הקדש".
You should make your voice known to them, for perhaps they are engaged in a private matter. [In Vayikra Rabbah we learn that] Rabbi Yochanan, when he would enter his home, would shake [and make a noise], because it is written, " and the sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place."
According to the Gemara, the bells of the Kohen Gadol also served as a means to protect privacy – not of the Kohel Gadol himself, but of anyone he might encounter. We can readily imagine not wanting to bump into the Kohel Gadol while performing some innocuous activity. Imagine yourself after a nice lunch, checking your teeth in the mirror for that small poppy seed stuck between your teeth. Suddenly you realize that someone important – your boss/a potential client/the Kohen Gadol is standing right behind you. Were you doing anything wrong? Of course not. But it's embarrassing nonetheless. For this reason, the Torah ensures that while your boss or client might silently walk up behind you, the Kohen Gadol never would. His bells would give him away, and protect you from the slightest sense of shame.
What a wonderful lesson! Every person deserves a sense of privacy and protection from embarrassment. Moreover, Chazal extend this protection even to our own homes. No one likes to be surprised suddenly, even by the closest family member, even when they're standing in their own kitchen.
So get in the habit of knocking when you walk into your own house or your own bedroom (assuming that you share it with someone). It will make you a more sensitive person – and transform your house into an even holier home – one the kohen gadol would be happy to enter.

That, of course, is the answer to the riddle: The woman knew it was the thief because no one would knock on his own door. When the man apologized and said, "So sorry, I thought this was my room," that's when Mrs. Thompson knew that she had her man.
Unless he read this week's parshah.