The seal of Yale University shows a folio inscribed with two Hebrew terms that we find in this week’s parashah, urim v’tumim, below which are the Latin words “Lux et Veritas” (“light and truth”). You’ll notice that I translated the Latin, but not the Hebrew. That is because it’s easy to translate the Latin, but far more difficult to translate the Hebrew. (For more on the Yale University seal, see as fascinating discussion of its possible philosophical, religious, and political underpinnings click here.)
In parshat Tzav we read the account of Moses’ ordination of the priests, and in particular, Aaron his brother as the High Priest:
Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. He put the tunic on him [Aaron], girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Tumim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem – as Adonai had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8: 6-9)Aaron wore a special, colorful outer garment called an ephod, as well as a breastplate encrusted with 12 precious and semi-precious stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, because as High Priest, Aaron served as their emissary to God in making sacrifices (see Exodus 28:15-30). It might be helpful to have a picture of what the High Priest looked like in all his regalia. Here is one:
The urim v’tumim were secreted inside the breastpiece. The terms “urim” and “tumim” seem to mean “light” and “whole/right.” They were objects that the High Priest employed when he could not discern the answer to a significant question and needed to consult God. Some commentators have suggested that they were piece of parchment. Scholars have suggested that the urim v’tumim were oracular objects, in shape and function similar to dice, with “yes” and “no” inscribed on each.
Does this mean that discerning God’s will is tantamount to tossing die?
Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Girondi, 1194-1270, also known as Nachmanides) tells us that the urim would cause the stones of the breastpiece, which were inscribed with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, to light up when the High Priest sought an answer from God, but the response always came scrambled. The tumim provided ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) that enabled the High Priest to decode the information from the urim.
I think there is a message about decision-making here for us. When confronted with a difficult or sensitive dilemma, we would often like a simple “yes” or “no” so we can stop pondering our decision and move on. Accordingly, we often latch onto a simplistic reason for our “yes” or “no,” often couching it in large, all-embracing terms, such as “One should never…” or “It’s always good to…” or “I couldn’t possibly…” This is the answer of the urim. But it is not always a sufficient response to an important question. We must also consult the tumim that imbues us with ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration). When we consider how our situation relates to God and others, how our question is situated in the broader and divine scheme of things, and the long-term effects of what we do, we bring more sensitivity and sanctity to the decision-making process. We unscrambled the message of the urim and see it with greater clarity, increasing the chances that we will arrive at “light and truth” and get the “whole” thing “right.”
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, the shabbat preceding Pesach. Traditionally, the sermon on that day is reserved for answering questions about the complex minutiae of Pesach observance. However, the Haftarah from Malachi contains God’s promise to rebuild the Temple following its destruction by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E. The prophet reminds us that hope is found in repentance, observance, and practices that reflect divine justice – all behaviors that require us to make appropriate decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society. The Haftarah ends with these stirring words, concerning Elijah the Prophet:
Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parent with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. (Malachi 3:23-24)According to tradition, in the messianic age, Elijah will answer all our unanswered questions. Until then, we must answer some of those questions as best we can. The model of the urim v’tumim can guide us.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman