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Lights & Perfections


How much do you want to know about the future? Ever had your cards read — or do you walk past the gypsy’s door? Do you ever skip ahead to the end of the book (I do) or do you read page after page in their correct order? In short: if you could see the future, would you want to?

For my money, this week’s parsha is one of the most delicious in all of Torah. It starts with a fabulous description of the priestly garb (stay with me, we’re getting to the fortune-telling connection), as follows:

An ephod (sort of an apron: see the full outfit here) made of gold, blue, purple & crimson yarns and fine twisted linen with shoulder straps to which are attached 2 stones of lapis lazuli engraved with the names of the 12 tribes.

A robe of pure blue with pomegranates of yarn alternated with golden bells around the hem, so that Aaron may be heard God when going in to and out of the sanctuary.

headdress of fine linen with a forehead plate of pure gold engraved with the words Holy to God.

An embroidered sash.

Linen pants (“to cover their nakedness”) from waist to thigh.

A breast piece of decision with four rows of 3 stones (carnelian, emerald, turquoise, agate, sapphire, etc.) framed in gold, with gold shoulder pieces and blue cords. Aaron – the first high priest – is commanded to carry these representations of the tribes over his heart whenever he enters the sanctuary.

A breast piece of decision. Don’t you just love the sound of that? Wait… it gets better. Inside the breast piece, Aaron – and the priests after him – were to place the urim and tumim, objects that are as mysterious as they sound. No one really knows what they look like – or even how to translate them. All we have are guesses, theories, and anecdotal evidence.

This week’s poem (Lights & Perfections) explores divination: what can go wrong with our guesswork, why the future might best be kept secret, and Jewish ambivalence thereof. I’m reminded here of two tidbits: 1) the Rabbinic teaching that Torah time is flexible, that stories appear out of order because there is no true “first this, then that” in the text; and 2) time and again in the story, God tells folks what’s coming next (400 years of slavery, childbirth, warfare) – and yet they proceed as if  they really don’t know what’s coming up ahead.

Anyway, here are some interesting tidbits about the urim and tumin:

— How did the stones work? One explanation is that the High Priest would meditate on them until he reached a level of divine inspiration. Then letters would appear to light up or stand out and thus present the truth, though not necessarily in the right order. The trick was to interpret the signs correctly.

— Urim comes from the Hebrew word “or” (light); and tumim from “completeness” — hence, the translation lights and perfections.

— Jewish-Roman historian Josephus said  that when the Israelites went to battle, the stones would shine forth with great splendor as a sign of victory.

— Some conjecture that the urim and tumin were (written) mystical divine names of God and the priest would meditate on these names to attain inspiration. The 13th century philosopher, physician and rabbi Ramban imagined that Moses personally wrote these names because only he had the greatness (the chutzpah?) to do so.

At the end of the First Temple period, King Josiah realized that Israel would be conquered (he was right) and in advance of their possible desecration, hid the urim and tumim, the Ark, and the anointment oil – none of which were ever found. This meant that the High Priest could not directly approach God for advice after the destruction of the First Temple.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce permalink
    02/22/2010 10:58 am

    Note that the layout of the urim/thumim (breast plate) had 12 stones laid out in an array of 4 rows and 3 columns. One stone for each tribe. But this is exactly the layout of every cell phone keyboard. The urim/thumim was, like, the first mobile phone…it allowed the High Priest to phone 613-YHWH when he needed directions!

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    02/22/2010 11:08 am

    My dear husband, you crack me up! Don’t you mean that the breastplate was the first iPhone? Only the best for God…

  3. judith rose permalink
    02/22/2010 12:08 pm

    As a weaver by trade; I’m going to weigh in on one item of particular interest to me: that the garments are not sewn – but are seamless, of one piece. While this can be related to the larger whole – i.e. we are all one group, “seamless”, etc. — it can also be related to the way in which the weaver actually weaves a seamless piece. to weave a seamless piece; you must go in a circle — weaving first a top layer and then a bottom layer — think of it as a 360 degree circle. The top is ‘easy’ to weave as you can see mistakes and correct them. The bottom layer is harder as you have to make the assumption that you are weaving it correctly as you cannot see any part of the bottom layer as you are weaving as it is covered by the top layer.
    I’ve been reading up about 360 degree evaluations — where you look at actions from all directions and viewpoints. Perhaps this is letting us know that the priests needed to be reminded of serving all their constituents needs and hearing all their voices.
    Another interpretation might be the skill needed to make a ‘perfect’ garment and that you can’t always visually see what you need to do – but need to rely on other senses other than sight. Perhaps experience and practice are more important than we might first assume.

  4. sue swartz permalink*
    02/22/2010 12:28 pm

    Thanks Judith. I love the notion of “seamless” and its implications for community as well as creation. Puts me in mind of how much of the Torah begins a sentence with the word “and” — the story just keeps going and going and going in one long run-on sentence. Also, the 360 degree circle… like a potter’s wheel. Much to think about!

  5. judith rose permalink
    02/22/2010 6:36 pm

    watch out – i’m getting committed to your style of torah study!

  6. Herb Solomon permalink
    02/25/2010 3:06 pm

    Hi Sue: I love the poem: your use of words so beautifully and, of course, the message. Sometimes we’re better off not knowing; often, the reverse. Imagine until our lifetime, for eons, expenctant parents couldn’t know the gender of their awaited child. Should one or should one not; or does it matter? Love, Herb

    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/25/2010 3:16 pm

      Well, thanks! And just for the record, it makes me nervous when people know what gender their child will be — talk about tempting the evil eye! Naming before birth? Scares me even more. The traditional Jewish practice of naming the child only after they are several days old seems prudent to me. Even baby showers make me a little nervous. Superstitious, yes. But why tempt fate?

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