Tetzaveh: Can’t You Knock?

I haven’t watched an I Love Lucy rerun in years.  But an entry in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Love Your Neighbor concerning this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, brought to mind a small detail about Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel.   

As I remember it, most scenes began with Lucy in her living room or kitchen.  Shortly thereafter, one or more of the “gang” would open the front door and walk right in.  If they bothered to knock (and I don’t think they did), it was as they were entering.   

Presumably, the practical reason was to obviate “wasted” TV time for social courtesies of announcing/waiting/door answering.  But in so doing, the script also reflected an unspoken behavioral assumption: spouses and close friends needn’t respect each other’s privacy!  Indeed, the unspoken message might have been that the disregard of privacy courtesies is itself a sign of healthy, close relationships and is therefore desirable.

Judaism disagrees.  Respecting privacy is always important, especially in close relationships. This week’s Torah portion describes how High Priest Aaron entered the Beit Hamikdosh with bells on his garment, the sound of which were to be heard “so that he not die.” (Ex. 28:35).  So that he not die??!!  From this starting verse, our sages derived the requirement that one should never suddenly enter even his own home unannounced (if someone may be inside), much less that of another.  (Talmud, Pesachim 112a).  One should always give sufficient warning of one’s impending arrival – perhaps a quick call or text message -- to avoid the possibility of embarrassment or imposition, even of a spouse or other family member. 

“Announcing” before entering one’s own (occupied) home may seem an unnecessary and even ridiculous rule.  But consider its broader implications.  The requirement reinforces the character traits of modesty (not intruding upon others’ space) and empathy (just as we would like our privacy respected, so we should strive to respect that of others, especially those about whom we care the most!).  It also helps to protect important relationships, such as those between spouses and between parents and children.  The inconvenience of alerting family and friends to one’s impending arrival is trivial compared to these benefits.

Moreover, the underlying principle can and should be extended far beyond entering our own and others’ homes.  These excerpts from the blog of Rabbi Ganz of the Jewish Heritage Initiative [http://blog.jhicambridge.com/2011/01/jhi-dr-torah-on-parshat-yitro.html] illustrate broader application of the principle:

  • Suddenly speaking to someone who is absorbed in an activity is an instance of the same intrusion (as entering without knocking).  Rather, such talk should be prefaced by words such as, “Excuse me.”
  • Bosses in a workplace who assign a major task should, ideally, first give warning that a big job will soon be put before the employees. The same holds true for teachers giving their students a major assignment.
  • Think of a spouse who must take a business trip that will leave the other half of the couple with extra duties taking care of the home and the children. The ethic of respect demands that to whatever extent possible, advance warning of the trip should be given.
  • Consider the example of a family where a child has his or her own bedroom, but when there is sleepover company, they are given that child’s bedroom, and the child doubles up with one of the other children. Respect for the child’s ‘sanctum’ demands that some measure of early notification of the need to move should be given to the child.
  • A student of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky asked for advice on how to raise his child.  The rabbi asked: “How do you bathe your child?” He answered that he first places several toys in the tub with the child, and allows him to play with them for a while undisturbed. Then he enters the room and removes the toys and washes the child. The rabbi then asked his student if he has any hobbies of his own. He answered that he enjoys working with tools and building things in a small workshop that he built for that purpose. The rabbi then asked him “What would you do if while working with your tools, three large men suddenly entered and took your tools away?” The student answered that he would be devastated. The rabbi then replied, “Your child’s world at that moment is a tub filled with toys. To the child, your entering and summarily removing his toys is exactly what those three men would be doing to you by suddenly seizing your favorite tools. When you are about to bathe your child you should instead first inform him that it will soon be time to get washed. Then explain lovingly that when this happens, the toys will have to be removed, but at the next bath, he will be able to play with them again. This way you are showing respect for the world that he inhabits.”

From an “obscure” Torah verse narrating how the High Priest dressed when entering and exiting the desert Tabernacle, our tradition extrapolated an important ethical practice intended to promote good character, stable relationships, and interpersonal harmony.  It’s an excellent example of how Judaism is not a “religion” but a way of life.

Shabbat shalom and Purim Sameach! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb