What a choice - Shabbat Tetzaveh, Shabbat Zachor with its special maftir and haftorah and Purim tomorrow!
So what might I talk about?
- the importance or otherwise of what we wear – linked to the sedrah’s description of the High Priest’s vestments and to the custom of dressing up at Purim
- Amalek – how we remember whilst blotting him out
- The ner tamid and its importance and symbolism
But I am NOT going to talk about any of these. I am under strict instructions to finish so we can daven Minchah at 12.45!! I AM going to talk about one of the Torah’s most difficult mysteriess which contains a lesson or two for us today.
The sedrah of Tetzaveh states in Shmot chapter 28 v 30 – ‘ve-ne-tar-ta ayl choshen ha-mishpat ayt ha-oh-reem ve-ayt ha-too-meem’ ‘You shall place the Urim and the Tumim on the breast plate of Judgement’. What did the breast-plate – the hoshen mishpat look like and what purpose did it serve?
On p470 in the Art Scroll chumash there is a diagram of what it looked like! The breastplate is similar to those we use today on the sifrai torah but the original is hinged and had a backing plate too. On the front plate are four rows, each of three precious stones, making twelve in total. Each stone representing one of the twelve tribes.
Some of you may recall Sonia Ley who was a Pinner member a long while ago, She made a replica which adorned one of our sifrai torah for many years.
So what are the ‘Urim and Tumim’ mentioned and are they still relevant? ‘Urim’ literally means ‘lights’ and ‘tumim’ comes from ‘ta-mem’ completeness.
Rabbi Frand quotes the Ramban who explains that Divine messages to the Cohen Gadol were received through a combination of the Urim and Tumim.
The Urim were the various stones on the breastplate which lit up – hence the name - to spell out letters indicating HaShem’s answer.
So, for example, if the stone representing Dan lit up the High Priest could select either the Daled or the Nun – and so on. Dan and Gahd are easy – only two letters to choose from; some tribes have 5 letters (examples are Reueven and Sheemon) and Issachar has 6!
And to make the puzzle even more complex not all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are included in the names of the tribes! Heit Tet [sin] Koof and Tzadei =ketz [‘end of days’] are missing.
The Talmud in Yoma 73 informs us however that the letters making up ‘avrahom yitzak yaakov shvtei yeshurun[tribes of G-d]’ were distributed among the stones to make up for this deficiency.
We are told that Moses placed a document in between the front and back plates. On it was written the name of HaShem – or, according to the Ramban, a number of HaShem’s names. This ‘document’was an essential part of the breast-plate.
Interpreting HaShem’s messages was obviously extremely difficult! Much more difficult than a Fiendish suduku or the most complex cryptic crossword because there was no definitive ‘right’ answer!
Which is where the Tumim come in – Divine guidance was essential to achieve ‘completeness’.
Ramban gives an example of a CORRECT interpretation when Phineas the then Cohen Gadol, asked HaShem which tribe should begin the war against the Canaanites when the B’nei Yisroel entered the Promised land.
The stone for Judah lit up as well as the letters yud, aleph, lamed and hey. With the aid of the Tumim Phineas came up with Yehudah Ya-ah-lay –the tribe of Judah shall go forth.
We know too that Cohen Gadols did NOT always get the interpretation right even with help of the Tumim!
One well-known example occurs in Samuel I chapter 1 v 13. when Eli HaCohen made a serious ERROR regarding Channah - the prophet Shmuel’s mother.
You know the story. The Vilna Gaon explains that the letters shin, kaf, resh and heh lit up. They spelt out “kesheirah” [worthy woman].
However Eli thought they spelt out “shikorah”[drunken woman]. The power of Tumim escaped him on this occasion.
It is clear from other situations that people other than the Cohen Gadol needed Divine inspiration to interpret messages or instructions from HaShem correctly.
In today’s haftorah for Shabbat Zachor we read in Shmuel I chapter 15 the story of the prophet Shmuel and King Shaul. Shmuel told Shaul in the Name of HaShem to utterly destroy Amalek - to wipe them out, every man, woman, child and all the animals from camels to donkeys. As you will recall Shaul did not do this – he spared Agag the Amalekite king and let him live and he did not kill all the animals either – he spared animals that could be used for sacrifices to HaShem. On the following day Shmuel came back and Shaul went out to meet him. Shaul did not say ‘I am sorry. I made a terrible mistake but I was overcome by misplaced mercy’. What Shaul actually said was ‘I have fulfilled the word of HaShem’! Shaul did not have the benefit of Tumim on this occasion so he misinterpreted HaShem’s instructions.
Rabbi Frand quotes the sordid story of ‘pilegesh b’Givah’ the concubine of Givah when the lack of HaShem’s guidance through Tumim resulted in the 11 tribes, filled with righteous anger almost wiping out the tribe of Benjamin.
Interpreting any message from HaShem correctly is not easy. Not even when it was transmitted through a Cohen Gadol or Prophet who had the help of Divine inspiration.
In this day and age when we have a difficult religious question, we consult Torah, Talmud with the help of more recent commentators.
Most of us are not knowledgeable enough, so we ask a Rabbi to find out the answer for us! Divine guidance is always needed if we are to come up with the right answer.
Rabbi Frand says that we can have the best of intentions, the most righteous motivations, we can see the light in the Torah and read those lights as support for our own opinions but all that is no more than the Urim. If we do not consult a sage who has the power of Tumim we can easily make tragic errors.
Finding such a sage is far from easy but we should be very careful before assuming that our interpretation is the correct one!
Anyone who has a ‘terrible certainty’ that they are right often has a closed mind to another’s points of view. In my opinion even worse, can be overly judgmental of behaviour by ‘another’ which does not conform with their own!
This leads me to two thoughts about Judaism’s approach to ‘learning’ and ‘doing’.
Applying intellectual learning and interpreting Tannach texts are high-risk activities at best. Without divine inspiration, one is just as likely to arrive at the wrong answer rather than the right one.
The various commentaries by Rashi, the Rambam and the Ramban make this very obvious. They often come up with very different conclusions.
When it comes to religious and ethical matters there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ answer but, being fallible humans, we don’t always get it right.
In an earlier devar I mentioned Susan Jeffer’s book ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’.
She says that how you react to the outcome of each decision you take is what really matters. Secular questions do not have a’right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. But religious and ethical questions do have answers which produce ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ outcomes.
My last thought this morning is that if you are placed in a situation where you have to choose between ‘doing’ and ‘learning’, I believe ‘doing’ should take precedence every time.
The response by the B’nai Yisroel at Sinai ‘ we will do everything you tell us’ says it all!
I find Chabad’s almost pragmatic approach to Judaism much more to my taste than that of an overly intellectual one.
Over-emphasising the ‘mind’ risks ignoring one’s ‘heart’.
Yes – of course we need to learn ‘how to’ do things properly. And we know that one’s genuine intention is paramount.
In the shul library there is a book by Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik – brother of the distinguished and better known Rabbi Joseph.
Its title is ‘Logic of the Heart; Logic of the Mind’. It is a fascinating exploration of Judaism from both an intellectual and emotional point of view. I recommend it as a really good read!
The cover of Nuffield science textbooks which were in use when my children were still at school contained a saying of Confucious – ‘I hear and I forget, I see and I remember and I do and I UNDERSTAND!’
Shabbat shalom Robin Woolf