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?
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).