The Urim and the Tumim

Have you ever been faced with a difficult decision, paralyzed in not knowing how to respond? Have you every just wanted a sign from G-d as to how to proceed? If that’s the case you’re in luck because our people had similar signs as they traveled through the desert.

In this week’s parsha, the finishing touches are put upon Aaron’s outfit before his coronation as Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. One of those items is his breastplate, or Hoshen, which contained twelve stones, one for each of the tribes. However, it also contained something else very special: the Urim (אורים) and the Tumim (תומים).[1)] What were the Urim and the Tumim? Rashi from 11th century France stated that the Urim contained the Tetragrammaton, the holy 4-letter name of G-d.[2] Items with this name cannot be discarded, having to remain in perpetuity or buried in a special place known as a Geniza. Elaborating on Rashi’s point, Rabbenu Bahya ibn Asher, a 14th century Kabbalist, asserted that these were oracular devices utilized to communicate with the Divine, below the level of a prophet and above that of hearing a heavenly voice.[3] Further elaborating on this is the Toledot Yitzhak,[4] who references the Jerusalem Talmud,[5] which gives the origin for their names: Urim-that they enlightened Israel, Tumim-that they made Israel perfect, that at the time when Israel was pure, they showed Israel the proper way.

This is all very nice but we’re still not certain as to how these oracular devices worked or why they maintained a central position in Aaron’s breastplate. For that we need to go back to Parshat Tetzaveh in Exodus, the other source for Aaron’s garments. There[6] it stated, “And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Tumim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, in his coming before G-d; and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before G-d continually.” Now we have the sense that these items were used for purposes of judging Israel, but we are still uncertain as to what way they did so.

A story from the First Book of Samuel gives us insight that these devices were utilized to determine whether or not to go to war.[7] Before a battle with the Philistines, King Saul made an oath that no Israelites should eat anything until the Philistines were routed. However, his son Jonathan did not hear the oath, saw honey on the ground, and ate of it. When Saul asked G-d if he should go after the Philistines, there was no reply. Immediately he knew that something was remiss so he took out the Tumim, and it singled out Jonathan as being guilty of violating Saul’s oath.

According to the rabbis, the Urim and the Tumim were also consulted by King David to determine whether or not he could expand Jerusalem’s borders[8] as well as in Temple times to determine whether or not the Temple could be expanded.[9] These devices could only be consulted by top officials, such as army generals.[10] The question is why would the rabbis increase the significance that the Urim and Tumim played for their ancestors? After all the rabbis had stated that formal prophecy had ended, proclaiming חכם עדיף מנביא,[11] a sage is preferable to a prophet, as well as disregarding a heavenly voice (בת קול) proclaiming that the Torah is not in heaven![12] Why put new emphasis on the importance of this oracular device? Perhaps the rabbis were enchanted with the idea of a direct pathway to G-d that the leaders of the Bible were able to utilize. Perhaps they longed for a similar means to correctly determine exactly what G-d wants from us. In any event, the Urim and Tumim were long gone by the time the rabbis compiled the Talmud; by that time, the rabbi was the chief authority in determining Jewish law.

How do we relate to the Urim and Tumim today? I would argue that while we do not have oracular devices that we utilize to connect with the Almighty, as devoted Jews we are striving to determine what G-d wants from us on a daily basis. Before making major changes in our life practices, we consult with those around us, not taking decisions lightly. The same was true with our ancestors who utilized the Urim and Tumim to be thorough and consider every option before making decisions. Our task is to determine what are our modern day Urim and Tumim are, our means of connecting with the Almighty and determining that we are proceeding on the correct path. It is much easier said than done, yet it is our opportunity and our responsibility to engage in this process, all the while looking for subtle signs of Divine affirmation. May the process of living one day at a time striving to be the people we are meant to be carry great meaning and fulfillment for each of us.

[1] Leviticus 8:8

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 8:8

[3] Rabbenu Bahya Leviticus 8:8

[4] Isaac Karo, 15th Century Spain

[5] Tractate Yoma Chapter 7 Law 3

[6] Exodus 28:30

[7] 1 Samuel 14

[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 41a

[9] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shevuot Chapter 2 Mishnah 3

[10] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 7a

[11] Bablyonian Talmud Bava Batra 12a

[12] Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b

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Swear in Garland

When I heard about the death of Antonin Scalia, I knew things would not be pretty with whomever Obama nominated. After all, Conservatives still shudder remembering their “Getting Borked” in 1987, so why not repay the favor? Unlike many, I found some things favorable about Scalia, including his friendship with justices from “across the aisle,” including Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I knew that Obama’s nominee would need a similar quality of appealing to both liberals and conservatives.

When brainstorming who I thought the nominee would be, I first looked for who was the head of the DC Court of Appeals. It was then that I came across (for the first time) the name Merrick Garland. Upon researching him I saw that this was the right man to replace Scalia, someone moderate in nature who could appeal to those on both sides of the aisle. It was a brilliant move on Obama’s part to choose someone with more conservative views (among his decisions were an en banc review of the revocation of the DC handgun ban, refusal to allow federal courts to apply habeus corpus to Gitmo prisoners, opposing voting rights for DC residents and often rejecting the appeal of criminals). I see Garland as someone with strong appeal to Conservatives who was nominated by a Liberal.

The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is telling Republicans not to even meet with Garland and not to consider him even after election is petty and shameful. The fact that politicians are so bent on getting revenge on Obama or bearing a grudge from the 1980s is such childish action. When are we going to grow up and judge someone on the merits of his position rather than on who nominated him?

The Republican party’s leadership had better wake up and play nice in the sandbox. Instead of taking these low blows they should say “We will consider Garland on the basis of his qualifications.” I believe if they do so they will find that they maintain the balance of power in the Supreme Court. If they do not do so then this, combined with their party’s leadership squabbles with Donald Trump, will lead to a bleak future for them.

Don’t Walk Out on Trump

I don’t want to sound hypocritical. Because my wonderful daughter was born 23 days ago I will not be at AIPAC this year. However, I want to challenge those who are planning to walk out on Donald Trump’s speech to think of the implications of this.

As pointed out in an article written by two of my classmates whose opinions I deeply respect, Bava Metzia 37b says that “silence is tantamount to consent.” I would never argue for silence as regards Trump. I find heinous his attacks on Muslims, Hispanics, the LGBT community and the differently-abled. As one who served on the board of the immigration reform group Humane Borders, who spoke in Tucson about the importance of civil marriage for all people regardless of their sexual orientation and who worked for a Muslim nonprofit group in Chicago as well as partnering with the 96th Street Mosque in Manhattan and the Islamic Center of Long Island, I find Trump’s remarks deplorable. His refusal to condemn KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and then feign ignorance was inexcusable. His mocking of reporter Serge Koveleski and then saying he didn’t know of him was childish, small-minded and unconscionable. This man is a paradigm for what is wrong with America, and the racism and xenophobia he has shown makes me feel that I am living in the jingoistic age of 1898 rather than in the “progressive” age of 2016.I support those who speak against him and challenge him.

At the same time, there is a way to challenge Trump without walking out of the room and which I believe would be more productive. Leviticus 19:17 teaches us “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; but you must surely reprove your neighbor.” Trump needs to be challenged on the points he makes. He needs to hear loud and clear that appealing to people’s animalistic, base natures will not work, that we subscribe to a higher power of pluralism, multiculturalism and respect for all. Walking out of the room does not give that message to Trump; rather it gives him increased attention and a podium to speak to those who might be more embracing of his views. Let him speak in accordance with the first amendment of our founding fathers, but do challenge his message of racism and intolerance.

I wish I could be in the room to model this principle in which I believe so strongly. There is a middle road between silence and walking out. I hope that this high road will be taken tomorrow.

The Meaning of Remember

This is considered the most important Shabbat of the year, where everyone is commanded to come to synagogue and hear the Maftir Torah reading. We are commanded to remember the actions of a people called Amalek, who attacked us from behind when we were leaving Egypt for the Land of Israel, purposefully cutting off the stragglers in the group, the young and the old alike. We are commanded to blot them out, the reason that every year we blot out the name of a descendant of Amalek, Haman. This commandment is considered so important that we are instructed both to remember and to never forget what Amalek did to us.

Why is so much importance given to how Amalek treated our ancestors? It’s especially interesting because the incident with Amalek occurred shortly after leaving Egypt, whereas in Deuteronomy, 40 years later, the Israelites are ready to enter the Land of Israel. During that time numerous other nations waged war against Israel, so why single out Amalek? Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, argues that the other nations were afraid to wage war against Israel, as they knew about the plagues that had befallen the Egyptians and their drowning in the sea. Amalek, however, was the instigator, unafraid of G-d and of the consequences of waging war. Rashi brought in a comparison story of a boiling bath that no creature could enter…until one villain came and leapt into it. While he was scalded, he cooled off the bath for the others.

Classroom management teaches us that when a classroom is spiraling out of control, one must immediately target the ringleader, and if s/he is punished, things will get toned down quickly. Amalek was that ringleader, the first to wage war against Israel and thus to challenge G-d.

Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshitz, a 16th century Polish commentator who wrote Kli Yakar, has a very different take. He juxtaposes Israel being reminded about Amalek with the section before, which instructs Israel to keep just weights and measures. This is also why, in his view, we read Parshat Shekalim first, as it focuses on the importance of everyone giving an equal contribution. Our ancestors did not trust that God would provide for them, so they did not use fair weights, rather keeping their scales unbalanced or pouring salt on the increase the weights. This lack of trust in one another made Israel weak and prime targets for an attack. Rabbi Ephraim goes one step further, asserting that the cloud of glory representing G-d had protected Israel from its enemies throughout their journey until this point. Amalek therefore came to teach Israel a lesson about proper behavior towards one’s fellow; As G-d says, “Those who lie are not allowed to live in my house.” Therefore, the word זכור, remember, is tied to Amalek’s attack, whereas the phrase לא תשכח, do not forget, is connected to the Israelites’ remembering to trust in G-d and to treat one another fairly.

What does any of this have to do with an Aufruf and an upcoming marriage? First, we need to remember that marriage, even more so than other human relationships, begins with trust in the other. Without trusting one’s partner, the foundation collapses. Marriage requires open communication and honesty, as well as a belief that the other is genuine and true. These convictions will help “protect” the marriage and let the love between you continue to blossom. It will strengthen your marriage, whereas lack of trust will weaken it.

However, there is another connection-the importance of remembrance in a marriage. When things are going great, when you’re in the “honeymoon period,” you don’t need to remember your past-rather you can live in the moment and enjoy life. It’s when things start to get more challenging, when there are lapses in communication or arguments that you need to remember what brought you together in the first place-your devotion to each other and the love and affection you show one another. Through remembering these good times: the first date, the engagement, the upcoming wedding, and the journeys you will take together in the future, you will help ensure that your marital bond always remains strong.

Ashley and Josh, I know that you will always be there for each other and trust in one another and that this will help you conquer any challenge you might face through your working together as a team. Mazal Tov on your Aufruf and your upcoming marriage!