Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
I'm confused. Here in Israel we have elections coming up in a few weeks, and I’ll be damned if there’s a party on the ballot I feel good voting for. ISIS is going crazy in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya; Syria itself is a bloody mess; radical Muslims are killing Jews and non-Jews at a fairly rapid clip in Europe, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how the west should respond to all of this.
Massive military intervention feels good, but will that solve the problem? Exacerbate it? What about Iran and the bomb? Is Bibi perhaps clumsy, but essentially right? Is Obama being cleverly cautious, or has he lost the plot? In general, one feels more and more that a crystal ball, a prophet, some way to peer around the corner and see the future, figure out what we should do in this really complicated world to get us to the best possible outcome, would really be welcome right about now.
This week’s parsha, T’zaveh, has something to say about the difficulty we have always had in making the tough decisions, working our way through a complicated reality to a positive conclusion. The parsha focuses on the priestly garments; the special clothing worn by the priests, with particular emphasis on the rather grand and quite complicated outfit worn by the כהן גדול - the high priest. One of the really interesting articles of clothing the high priest wore was the חושן משפט (choshen mishpat) – the breastplate of judgment. It contained a dozen precious stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, with the names of each tribe engraved on its stone, and, according to the Talmud, the names of the forefathers as well.
What made the breastplate really special was the placement inside of it of the אורים ותומים (urim v’tumim) – some sort of name or names of God, which gave the high priest, when he concentrated on the name, the ability to see, in the letters engraved on the stones, the answers to important communal questions that came up. So, if the Israelites needed to find out how to arrange themselves before going into battle, or had to determine who had committed some crime, the high priest would ask the question, concentrate on the divine name, and the letters engraved on the stones in the breastplate would spell out the answer by being illuminated for him – either in his mind’s eye, or for real, depending on how spooky you want this to be.
This use of the breastplate is the basic explanation for why it is called “the breastplate of judgment” – when the Israelites needed a judgment, a decision, about some important problem, they would get it in this way from the choshen. The choshen would supply a judgment as to the best way forward in a dilemma. The Rabbis tell us that only during the first temple period did the breastplate function in this way: after the destruction of the first temple there still was a breastplate, but the urim v’tumim were lost, and so this function could no longer be performed.
Rashi (France, 11th century), however, adds another interpretation – a “drash” - to the “judgment” aspect of the breastplate. He quotes the Talmud in Tractate Zevachim (88b) which says that the very wearing of the breastplate by the high priest serves as atonement for the sin of the perversion of justice. “Judgment”, in this understanding, means a specifically legal decision, and the point is that the breastplate serves as an ongoing atonement for the sin of getting legal judgments and decisions wrong. Twice in our parsha, Rashi goes out of his way to give us both explanations – the basic one of judgment as decision, a solution to an important and difficult communal problem, and the additional midrashic understanding of judgment as a legal decision, made by a Jewish court, which the judges will sometimes get wrong, and which the breastplate, with the names of the nation’s tribes on it, will atone for.
Why does Rashi need to tell us both interpretations? Why not leave it as the simple and more obvious one of the breastplate as problem-solver, without bringing in the difficult notion of the choshen serving as an ongoing atonement for the Jewish people’s inability to consistently and correctly arrive at judgment and justice. The former explanation is more obvious because the breastplate, later in the Bible, is, in fact, used to answer communal questions, and that seems to be its basic purpose. In addition, this explanation also describes the relationship between the urim v’tumim placed inside the choshen and the choshen itself. The explanation of the breastplate as atonement for wrong legal judgments fails to do that. So, why bring it at all?
I think Rashi may want to present the two ideas because they relate to each other. In a world where human beings could trust themselves to always judge things correctly, always know the difference between the guilty and the innocent, the right and the wrong, the true and the false, we would not need atonement for getting judgments wrong, because we never would. By the same token, we would not need the urim v’tumim to turn the breastplate into a source of advice and direction, because, clever and clear-sighted as we are, we would be able to figure things out on our own. But since this is a world in which, unfortunately, we consistently pervert justice, with our bias, prejudice, lack of insight, and general inability to see things as they really are, we realize that we also do need to humbly avail ourselves of some divine assistance, as is supplied by the messages we get from the stones in the choshen, when we want to figure out what to do in a tough situation, when we have a hard decision to make.
The choshen, together with the urim v’tumim, are a gift to a confused humanity, dwelling, as Pslams 107, 10, puts it, in darkness and the shadow of death. God gives us atonement, forgives us, for our inevitable mistakes in legal decision-making, and also helps us see our way forward in a complicated, confusing world. The stones of the choshen literally light our path in a world in which we can not always see our way clearly. However, this was only the case in the first temple, when the presence of God was keenly felt and experienced by the Jewish people. After that golden age, we regressed to where we are today: unable to be certain we are making the right judgments, and confused about our decisions concerning public policy. The choshen teaches us that this is man’s natural state. In a world in which our relationship with God is, at best, indirect, imperfect, seen through a glass, darkly, so, too, is our relationship with the world. Confusion is all we can expect.
The Rabbis tell us that, since the destruction of the first temple, we no longer have the urim v’tumim and we are on our own. The challenge is for us to recognize that we need to shoulder the burden, and independently figure it all out, as difficult and daunting as that may be, by ourselves. The temptation to find a seer, look for signs and wonders, messages from beyond, that might help us, must be resisted, as we work our way, honestly and bravely, through a truly dark and confusing world.