“Parsha to the Point” – Tetzaveh 5777

Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

Rabbi David Stav 

One of the priest’s special garments is the Urim Ve-tumim, the grid of precious stones covering the breastplate. The Torah says the following: “You shall place the Urim Ve-tumim into the Choshen of judgment so that they will be over Aaron’s heart…” [Ex. 28:30] Twelve special precious stones were set within a golden grid. Each had its own name and color, and the the names of the tribes of Israel were etched into them. When the Children of Israel were faced with fateful questions, the High Priest would formulate a question, and according to our main rabbinical tradition, different letters would light up to provide the answer. The letter combinations would form the answers to the questions that were asked. This seemed like a fantastic way of getting answers to pressing questions.

We often entertain the intriguing possibility receiving answers to the fateful questions in life by simply sending them to Hashem Himself. No need to grapple with the questions too much. Why go into an in-depth analysis of various facets of the issue, when you can just get a simple, honest, truthful and unbiased answer immediately, and on the spot?

However, this too-good-to-be-true method didn’t always solve our problems. The Book of Judges (Shoftim) relates what transpired when most of the tribes of Israel waged war against the tribe of Benjamin, following the death of a young girl at the hands of members of the tribe of Benjamin.

The tribes inquire of the Urim Ve-tumim, which issue a response: they should engage the Benjaminites in battle. Yet the nation repeatedly suffers defeats during the war. So even a Divine response to a human question doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. We also read the Haftarah that relates how King Saul, who is ordered to kill Amalek, disobeys his orders and spares the Amelekites’ beasts, as well as their king, Agag.

When the prophet Samuel asks him to explain his puzzling behavior, he comes up with a number of excuses. When we read this story, we immediately ask why Saul didn’t just ask the Urim Ve-tumim how to go about fighting Amalek. It turns out that even when we have the Urim Ve-tumim at our disposal, we need to want to ask them a question, and we need to know how to do it. If a leader wholehearted believes in the path he has chosen, or if, for some other reason, he doesn’t want to ask the Urim Ve-tumim, he won’t do so, and no one can compel him to do so, either.

This is exactly what happened with King Saul. If Hashem wanted to mislead the nation and punish it for having acted improperly in its dealings with the tribe of Benjamin, He will be sure to call on them to go to war, even though they will suffer countless defeats at the outset.

So much for asking the questions – what about deciphering the answers? Yes, the correct letters will light up, but in which order should we read them? Let’s take the Hebrew letters shin, kaf, resh, and heh, which could light up. Depending on the order of the letters, they could be read as either “shikorah” – inebriated – or “k’sherah” – kosher, or fit for use. The lesson to be drawn from this is that the outcome of the letters read from the Urim Ve-tumim will be determined by the person interpreting them. A human being.

There are no shortcuts, not even when the Urim Veturim are around. If so, we’d be right to ask what purpose they serve, if they depend on human beings to phrase the questions and interpret the answers.

Perhaps, the greater purpose of the Torah is to teach people that Hashem dwells within us, within the nation itself, and more specifically, within individuals. He dwells within us through our minds, our souls, our morality, and other tools that put us into motion. The Urim Ve-tumim demonstrate to humanity that the Divine Presence dwells within the nation. We only need to want to know the will of Hashem, and when we do, it can be revealed to us. They won’t, however, ensure that we’ll always make the right decisions. We’ll always be required to choose between good and evil, and to assume responsibility for our choices. There is no other way – we will all need to think long and hard about who and what we choose. We won’t ever have the luxury of depending on the Urim Ve-tumim to make those choices for us.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]

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