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.
A 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.