Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10
In Jewish tradition, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out God's will. We study the words of the Torah and their many interpretations in an attempt to understand what message God might be sending us. But what if there were a way of asking God a question? What if we could communicate directly with the Divine? Would that clear it all up? This week's Torah reading provides a method for doing exactly that, but the results might surprise us.
Parshah Tetzaveh details the garments of the High Priest,
including a mysterious item called the urim v'tumim (literally, "lights and truths"). In the Torah, this item is referred to as the "instrument of decision" that was carried inside the "breastplate of decision," and the High Priest carried it "over his heart before the Lord at all times" (Exodus 28:30).
What was this item, and why did the High Priest have to carry it with him?
The Talmud (Yoma 73) explains that this was a device that could be used to obtain an answer from God on a question of great importance to the nation. It worked in conjunction with the breastplate that had 12 precious stones, each inscribed with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
The letters of these names (plus a few other phrases) inscribed on the stones of the breastplate included all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
When a king of Israel needed guidance, he would look into the face of the High Priest and ask his question. The urim v'tumim would cause some of the stones of the breastplate to glow, lighting up the names of the some of the tribes. The High Priest would then use the letters in those names to construct an answer to the question.
For example, when David asked the High Priest Abiathar whether Saul would pursue him, the stones of the tribes of Judah, Reuben and Dan lit up. Abiathar took the yud from Judah, the resh from Reuben, and the dalet from Dan to spell out the word yered — "he will pursue."
Of course, the message the High Priest received was ambiguous. The letters in the names of the tribes that lit up could have been used to spell out a large number of different words, producing quite different messages. The key figure in getting the message right was the High Priest. He needed to be a person of high worth, filled with a spirit of holiness and a connection to the Divine. At the same time, he needed to be an empathetic person who could connect with difficult human situations on the ground. Only when both conditions were fulfilled could the High Priest provide a clear channel between the Holy One in heaven and humans on earth who needed guidance.
Even with the direct link to God provided by the urim v'tumim, the High Priest could only do his best to interpret an ambiguous message from God in light of particular human experiences. And despite our yearning for clarity, that is not so different from the best we can do when we study the words of our Torah and tradition.
Perhaps the lesson of the urim v'tumim is that whatever our method, the only divine messages we can truly hear are those that make their way into our world and into our very human minds, hearts and souls, connecting us to something far beyond our ability to understand.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]