The Ultimate Destination Spot

In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron is given instruction on how to properly visit the Tabernacle.

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If the neighbors invited us over to view slides of their recent vacation to India, we might cringe to see goofy photos of them in traditional Indian clothes, posing with "the natives," or to hear guffawing imitations of the hotel concierge's accent. Even if our neighbors were more sophisticated, we might still be uncomfortable hearing about the "exotic customs" or the "famous hospitality" of the common people.

Talking About Places We Visited

These are caricatures, of course. But they point to a serious question about how those of us who travel from affluent countries to developing countries talk about the places we visited, once we have returned home. We want to convey our wonder, delight and sorrow--and also to share what we've learned. But sometimes we end up using language that condescends or perpetuates stereotypes. How can we communicate about our travels in a way that both respects our hosts and informs our listeners?
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In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron receives instructions on how to visit the ultimate destination spot: God's own house, the holy sanctuary in the Tabernacle, which the Israelites are about to build in the desert. A cryptic but crucial passage focuses on one of Aaron's priestly garments, the robe of the High Priest, which is designed to enable his entry into the sanctuary and--just as important--his successful return:

On its hem, make pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out--that he may not die.

The Rabbis associated the sounding of the golden bells with the prohibition against entering a person's home without proper warning. The 12th-century French commentator Joseph Bechor Shor elaborates that the bells teach that,

It is decent behavior that one should not enter one's fellow's house suddenly, lest the home's resident do or say something that ought to remain private; for if the intruder hears it, the resident will thereafter avoid the intruder (yastir mipanav).

The Bechor Shor lays out some very high stakes! The respect due to a person in his or her home is like that due to God in the Tabernacle. And if we fail to show the proper deference, God will hide God's face from us--a loss of relationship that implies utter catastrophe.

The rabbis also taught that the bells enabled the High Priest to atone for the people's sins of lashon hara--improper speech--which, they suggested, cannot be atoned for in any other way. Why not? As the famous Hasidic parable has it, lashon hara is like the feathers of a torn pillow: once cast into the winds, it can never be called back. Another commentator compares the sound of the bells to the smoke of the incense burnt in the Tabernacle. Therefore, the tinkling of the bells, ringing through the air like sacred smoke, symbolically cleanses the air from our words.

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Guy Izhak Austrian

Guy Izhak Austrian is a community organizer and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.