By Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
In this week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh, we find detailed instructions for the clothing that the priests of old were to wear while doing their priestly duties. The instructions are quite elaborate, as are the garments themselves. Having been a fan of Project Runway, it feels a little like the preparation for New York Fashion Week, I imagine. The Torah describes ornaments and aprons and robes and hats and belts – a total of 8 garments.
These items are described in elaborate detail over 41 verses. The materials for the garments include precious stones and linen and gold chains and colorful yarn. And then, in the 33rd verse of this chapter of clothing design comes a strange instruction. The Torah commands that golden bells with clappers in them are to be sewn into the bottoms of the priestly robes.
And why, might you ask? Why put bells on the garments of the priests? The Torah answers that question with a bizarre explanation: “the [bell] sound will be heard when the priest comes to the sanctuary before the Eternal and when he leaves, and he will not die.”1
What does that mean? The bells will help ensure the priest won’t die? What is that about?2
The classic Jewish commentators wrestle with this question.
Rashi says that the bells are a reminder to the priest that he needs to be fully garbed before entering the sanctuary. Note to self.
Chizkuni teaches that the bells were there to alert the Israelites that it was time for the service to begin.
Bachya ibn Pakuda teaches: the bells are there to give God notice – like ringing the bell to let God know the priest is coming.
The bells ring to make sure the priest pays attention to the task at hand. The bells ring to make sure that the Jewish people are paying attention, The bells ring to draw God’s attention. These commentaries helped me see this text in a whole new way.
And here we are today. We have no more priests, and none of your clergy are here with bells on.
But it seems to me that the bells are ringing. And that something is happening. And that we need to give our full attention.
In this moment in time, the bells I am referring to are words.
Words are powerful, my friends. Unlike that childhood poem about sticks and stones, words can hurt. And words uttered by people who have media attention, and their names on the stationery of the federal government, and airplanes to fly on paid for by our tax dollars – those words can really really hurt.
When Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted out this week that the American government’s support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” she either knowingly or unwittingly utilized a medieval anti-semitic trope – that Jews control the economic system, and that we are determined to use it in a nefarious way to undermine society. This trope has real historical baggage for us as Jews.
As Peter Beinart wrote this week, “accusing Jewish organizations like AIPAC of buying politicians is different than accusing the NRA or the drug industry of buying politicians, because modern history is not replete with murderous conspiracy theories about how gun owners and pharmaceutical executives secretly use their money to control governments.”3
I want to be clear. The Representative is entitled to be critical of the actions of the government of Israel. But her selective critique of Israel – as if Israel were the worst violator of human rights in the world, or at least the only one worth tweeting about – well, this was not even the first time that she had done that. Last month, she tweeted an apology for a 2012 tweet in which she also evoked anti-Semitic stereotypes by accusing Israel of having “hypnotized the world” about its behavior in the Gaza Strip.
I denounce Representative Omar’s statements in no uncertain terms. They were out of line, and in her position of authority, positively dangerous. Period. She deserved the rebuke of her political party and the Jewish community, and she received that rebuke. This is our sanctuary, and we need to be able to name what a difficult week this has been for us as Jews. We have every historical reason to fear what strains of anti-Semitism can lead to. We continue to suffer from PTSD as a Jewish people from generations of trauma.
As a Jew, I do believe in the power of teshuvah, of repentance and second chances. Representative Omar is already running out of second chances, to my mind. I appreciated her apology this week, but as we know, Judaism believes that apologies are only real when they are paired with changed action. Everyone across the political spectrum heard the bell this week, waking us up once again to the alarm of anti-Semitism. Let’s wait and see if Representative Omar heard those bells, too.
But do we always hear the bells? And when we hear them, do we always listen?
As a candidate for President in 2015, Donald Trump spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition and said to the assembled, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money… But that’s okay. You want to control your own politician.” Then-candidate Trump was unabashedly using the same anti-semitic canard against Jews – in a room full of Jews! Those remarks were also beyond the pale for anyone – anyone – let alone, a candidate for the presidency. Now in exchange for his remarks, Donald Trump was made the nominee of his party for president. No rebuke, at least not from his friends. No apology. No bells.
And there was definitely no subsequent change in behavior.
Do remember when the candidate for president retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton surrounded by money and a Jewish star? Do you remember the ad his campaign ran that showed three Jews – Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein, and George Soros – alongside language about “global special interests” that “control the levers of power in Washington”? No bells. And if they were ringing, those who were friends and supporters of the candidate ignored them.
When President Trump said about a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville – you remember – the one at which one side shouted “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and Soil,” the rally that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer – when President Trump asserted that “there were good people on both sides,” his words spoke volumes about what he thinks about white supremacy in general, and anti-Semitism in particular.
Now, two wrongs don’t make a right, I can hear you thinking. I agree 100%. Candidate and then President Trump’s hurtful, fear inspiring words do not make Representative Omar’s words defensible, acceptable, or justifiable. They don’t. Her words are emblematic of a rise in anti-Semitism in this country – to levels unprecedented in my lifetime. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, her words hurt. They scare me. They are intolerable. And so are the President’s words.
So let’s decide what this is really about, here and now.
What if people across the nation, and across the political spectrum and across the TV punditocracy reacted to each and every hateful, fear-inspiring comment made by a public official with the same volume as we reacted to Representative Omar’s words? What if, every time hate speech was uttered by a public figure, we heard the priestly bells ringing, calling us to respond? I am convinced that, if we were serious, we could turn the tide of hate in this nation.
If this is about denouncing anti-Semitism, let’s do that, unequivocally, and without regard to who said or implied the anti-Semitic remarks.
If this is about denouncing bigotry, hate, and inflammatory speech, then let’s do that, regardless of whether the person who spoke those words sits on one side of the political aisle or the other, or whether the blackface they put on was last week or thirty years ago.
If this is about saying as a nation that while we value the First Amendment right to free speech as sacred, we collectively denounce all words that incite hate, let’s do that.
If this is what we mean – that anti-Semitic speech, bigoted speech, racist, homophobic, misogynistic speech – are unbecoming the citizens of this nation and are absolutely unacceptable from any elected official, then let’s say that. And then let’s mean it. My friends – such a commitment – to hear the bells ring every time we hear an act of hate speech from our electeds – it’s a call that could unite our country. If we mean it.
Meaning it will be hard work, though, because there’s a lot of hate speech coming from the left, and coming from the right.
Meaning it means: regardless of which lever you pulled on election day. Meaning it means: regardless of the color of your skin, or the color of the skin of the person who spoke the hateful, harmful words. Meaning it means: regardless of your religion or theirs. Meaning it means: we are going to denounce the words, even if the utterer was one of our own, however we define that.
In bible times, it was the job of the priest to offer the sacrifices, to intercede with God on behalf of the people, to do the atoning and the healing. In bible times, the priests wore bells on their clothing – to remind themselves and the Israelites and even God of the task at hand. Oh, for the good old days when it fell to the priest to ring the bells and do all of the work.
There are no more priests in our Jewish tradition, and no more priestly garments, although you all look pretty fabulous tonight.
No, it’s just us. But in some strange way, the bells of the priests are still ringing for us, and perhaps even for God, inviting us to pay attention, to stand at attention, to respond to their call.
This week, we heard the bells ringing. We heard them especially loudly because they were directed at us, at our people. And when we heard them, we jumped into action, and we expected everyone of every political persuasion to respond as well.
Here’s the hard part: will we hearken next week when hateful words are directed at someone else? Will we listen when the bells ring for people of other faiths, races, gender identities, other sexual orientations? And will we call those people out, too?
Because if not – if we’re only going to hear the bells when the hate is directed at us, we can’t expect others to hear the bells when we are the objects of derision. And if we want others to understand how it feels to be the focus of hate, we will need to be willing to hear their pain, too.
The bells are ringing. Those bells can unite us – if we hear and respond to each and every one. Those bells can help us all atone for the sins of the past, building a world of love for the future. Those bells can call us, as the bells on those priestly garments, to pay attention, to do the work of service for each other, and for the Holy One of Blessing who created every human being in God’s image.
Can you hear them ringing?
- Exodus 28:35
- Thanks to Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles for
bringing my attention to this text.
- “The Sick Double Standard in the Ilhan Omar Controversy,” The
Forward, February 12, 2019.