Michael S. Friedman | March 2, 2012
In Parashat T’tzaveh, which we’re about to read, we learn all about the garments of the high priest. And we’re told all about the tunic and the pants and the headdress and the breastplate, even the shoes, that the high priest was to wear back in the ancient days as he officiated the service at the Temple.
And then we’re told in the section that we’re going to read this evening about something that’s a little bit strange or unusual to us, and that is that inside of the breastplate that the high priest is to wear, we’re told that he has to have a little pouch, and inside the little pouch there are to be two stones: one white, and one black. And they’re called in Hebrew “Urim” and “Thummim.”
What were they used for? Well, they were sort of like an oracle that was consulted by the Jewish people in ancient days when they had an important decision to make and they didn’t know what the answer was. This was kind of common in ancient cultures; we certainly know from ancient Greek culture that this was common practice. And even though to us it might seem a little bit like a little magic 8 ball, they took this seriously. And there are examples later in the Bible of times when the Urim and Thummim, these stones of prophecy, or these stones of decision, were actually consulted in order to decide how to move forward.
I haven’t translated for you yet what Urim and Thummim mean. And that’s for a particular reason: it’s very difficult to figure out what they mean. Scholars have debated this for centuries. It’s probably some sort of idiom, but if we were to translate it, “Urim” would be something like “light,” and “Thummim” could be “truth.” Light and truth.
Some of you might recognize that phrase as being adopted by a certain university in Connecticut as part of its seal. But light and truth, those were what were to be inside the breastplate of the high priest. It asks us to consider why these two go together.
I’ll tell you a story, a story that comes from the Talmud. The rabbis asked one another, “What’s the proper greeting for a bride? What are you supposed to say when you see a bride?” And they answer, “You’re supposed to say, What a beautiful and graceful bride.’” It’s a nice greeting. Then they ask, “But what if she’s not so beautiful, and not so graceful?” And they say in that case, you’re supposed to say “What a beautiful and graceful bride.”
What’s the point that the rabbis are making by telling this story? They’re making the point that we often live our lives in pursuit of truth, or in pursuit of perfection, which is another way to translate “Thummim.”
But there are times when light is a higher value. There are times when things are more important than just the straight truth.
And I think often we live our lives in pursuit of this truth, or in pursuit of perfection. We run around trying to chase perfection, which exists externally form us. Or perhaps it doesn’t exist at all, it’s just an ideal. We run around busily trying to achieve perfection. And we never catch it.
And perhaps it’s those times when we are a little bit exhausted from chasing perfection that we should realize that perhaps light is more important. Light comes from within us. Light is something that we can give to the world. And while truth and perfection are very important—they lead to justice perhaps—light also leads to things that are very important. Light leads to compassion, and to community, and perhaps it itself also leads to truth. And to peace.
This coming Thursday as we celebrate Purim, we’ll read from the M’gillah. At the very end of the M’gillah, after the whole story comes to its resolution and the Jewish people are saved from destruction in Persia, one of the most important lines, I think, of our entire Tanach, our entire Hebrew Bible, is read: it says, “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah vesimcha vesason vicar:” “In those days, at that point in time, the Jews had light and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16)
That’s really what we’re going for. Not necessarily truth, and not necessarily perfection, because sometimes there are things higher than truth, and sometimes perfection is impossible. But light, and joy, and honor are where we can all be headed.
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