Nearly a thousand years ago, in the 1070s, a 70’ long piece of embroidered cloth we now call the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother to depict the events leading up to the Norman Conquest. One section shows the funeral of Edward the Confessor, who died some months before the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (And All That). If you look carefully at that scene, you’ll find - down at the bottom - two people carrying bells in each of their hands.
The use of bells in religious ceremonies goes back a long way, in the West at least to ancient Rome. And not just religious ceremonies. For many cultures around the world from time immemorial have used bells to ward off evil spirits: in India and China and Japan they used them alongside wind chimes. And the scene in the Bayeux Tapestry might well be part of that tradition, the folk belief that evil could be averted by frightening it off, so to speak, with bells. Wedding bells too, in Christianity, belong in this tradition: they announce, and celebrate, the couple – but they also ward off the evil that was felt to lurk whenever joy is present.
These thoughts are prompted by a curious detail in this week’s Torah text. The robe of the High Priest, worn when he was performing his cultic duties, is described in elaborate detail in Exodus 28. It includes the instruction that his robe was to be adorned with bells on its hem (verse 35) – “and the sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy space, before the Eternal One, and when he comes out, v’lo yamut”, (literally, ‘so that he does not die’). Archeologists in Jeruslaem have recently discovered such a bell near the Temple Mount.
As so often in the Torah, there’s no explanation given for these mysterious bells. They can hardly be there out of a worry that the High Priest would get lost – it’s not the sort of bells we put round a domestic cat, or the Alpine bells round the necks of cattle or sheep or goats. A traditional explanation suggests that it could have been an announcing bell so that people would know when the High Priest was entering the Holy of Holies for the sacred business of communing with the Divine – a bit like the one that begins and ends that other sacred activity, the opening and closing of the New York Stock Exchange. Or perhaps, like the pomegranates that also adorned the hem of his robe, a symbol of the fruitfulness of religious life, the bells were symbolic – representing connectedness with the divine, a connectedness that goes beyond words.
Or perhaps it is evidence - to go back to the Bayeux Tapestry - of that ancient belief that ringing bells can ward off evil? Don’t we all wish, profoundly wish, that we could keep ‘evil’ away - stop bad things from happening - just by ringing a bell? Whether it is ringing a bell, or spitting three times (p,p,p), or stroking a rabbit’s foot, or not walking under ladders, or wearing an amulet blessed by a wonder rabbi (or by the Kabbalah Centre), or any one of a hundred thousand folk customs that have arisen in all ages and all places on the planet – how amazing life would be if there could be a straightforward link between an action we take (something we do, or say, or wear, or pray) and the warding off of unpleasant, unhappy, upsetting, disturbing events, things that are part of the weave of life but cause us misery, pain, distress.
Beneath our rational selves, and our conscious, modern minds that might describe all of these things as superstitions, as attempts to control life in all its uncontrollable randomness, deep in us we can probably locate a primitive emotional need to believe that we might have some way of controlling our fate, of doing something that might prevent a disaster, or an accident - for ourselves, or those we love. Harm can be avoided, we believe (we desperately want to believe), if only I’m good enough, or pious enough, or superstitious enough, or careful enough.
What we humans can’t bear, don’t seem to be able to bear - and our culture colludes in this in all sorts of ways - is the sheer contingency of life, its messiness, its unpredictability, its randomness, its haphazardness. You can get into your car and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know that, through no fault of your own, that you can be in an accident. It can shake you up, it may even kill you – heaven forbid. And we say ‘heaven forbid’ – or p,p,p as my grandmother would do - as a prophylactic: as if just by saying those two words it could stop it happening. Or the parallel belief that if we don’t say it, it might happen: because now we have thought it, it just could happen and we’d have brought it into being just by thinking it. We tie ourselves in knots because if, in the end, what happens to us is out of our control – that knowledge is unbearable, the feelings of helplessness are unbearable.
We would all do anything to avoid these kinds of random events happening. We would love to know how we can avoid distress and pain - but we can’t, and some part of us knows we can’t, knows that life is not organized like that: even our bodies themselves are part of that contingency sown into the fabric of life. We know our bodies are fragile, vulnerable, and we can look after them as much as we can, eat the right things, exercise them, take care of them - but they still let us down in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.
Being an embodied human being is a daily lesson in the essential fragility of our humanness – and our mental states too are equally as vulnerable, however much we might meditate, or medicate, or practice mindfulness, or however many years of therapy we might have had.
Bad stuff happens. And no bell ringing will make a difference. We are not that omnipotent – even though lodged in us is an irrational belief that we are: that we can manage our fate by just taking the right precautions; or having the right security systems in place, in our homes, or synagogues, or computers; or just following the right Health and Safety guidelines, or having the right child protection schemes in place. One very modern illusion – a deeply needed belief, but an illusion – is that we can legislate our way to happiness by removing distress, or just alleviating the possibility of distress; that we can have systems and laws to stop bad things happening to us, or to our children, or to ‘the vulnerable’ – although we are all vulnerable. That is of the essence of our humanity: our vulnerability, our mortality, – “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne, ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions’, 1624).
So although we don’t know – can’t know – the purpose of the bells on the High Priest’s robe (the Talmud discusses whether there were 36 or 72 of them), what we read is that these bells, on this garment, were a matter of ultimate concern in the scheme of things. The Hebrew text intuits that what was going on in these arcane rituals was a matter of life and death. He was to wear these bells v’lo yamut, (‘so that he does not die’).
But maybe we can understand this phrase figuratively, and existentially. I prefer to think that the wearing of these bells was v’lo yamut - ‘lest he stops living in the moment’. By which I mean that these bells kept him alert, kept him awake, moment by moment, every step of the way, every movement of his body, even as he breathed in and out, as we all breathe in and out, the bells kept him alive to the mystery, the awesome nature of being alive now, as we are alive now – though we have no bells to remind us that this is a thing of awe: human life, in all its fragility and vulnerability, all those cells, all that DNA, all that drama of heart and lungs, liver and kidneys and bones and brain, all that ‘three pounds of jelly’ (as Oliver Sacks, with well-tempered irony, describes the brain ) through which everything flows and filters...what are we to make of it all, this body of ours, this mind of ours, with its memories, its feelings, its knowledge, alongside its limitations, its failures, its fading powers? We have nothing as simple as a bell to remind us of the awesome nature of life, daily life, our life, our being here now.
The bells kept the High Priest attentive to the mystery of being, at every moment. Now and now and now. And this, I would suggest, is the holy space he entered – this awareness of the present moment in all its kedushah, its unfolding holiness of being . The Torah text gives us a picture not just of an archaic ritual that has disappeared into the mythic past – but a picture of our inheritance, we ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6). When we read of these bells we turn our inner ears to the music of the present moment - we are the priests whose task it is to enter into the presence of the sacred: this music of the sacred, in each moment, is sometimes so soft we can hardly hear it, it’s sometimes so quiet we forget to hear it, it’s sometimes so faint we think there is nothing there.
We need to be reminded, every day, twice every day – Shema Yisrael, ‘Hear O Israel, Listen out Yisrael’, when we go out and when we come in, the bells of the High Priest are still to be heard, each moment, reminding us of the holiness of life itself. And if we don’t attune ourselves to listening in – it is as good as being dead. This is the sacred drama of a kingdom of priests, our daily drama, life-giving, life-preserving: it is within the randomness of life, that holiness is to be found.
The more time we spend trying to control life to avoid bad things happening, the further we get from contentment. We can drive ourselves, and others, mad If we cannot embrace life as – in the final analysis – uncontrollable, as uncontrollable as those bells on the hem of the High Priest. Every moment he moved, they sounded. Every moment he moved they reminded him: you are alive now, and this is sacred. However still you are, you will hear the bells, faintly, the background to life. It’s when you stop hearing the bells, when the bells stop – that’s it, that’s the end of your life. The dead don’t hear the bells. They are for the living, and for life. Shema Yisrael.[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, February 8th, 2014]