Torah Portion: Exodus-Tztzaveh
The Jewish world, particularly Israel, would certainly like to consult an oracle to find out how the situation in Egypt will ultimately get resolved. As always we are living with questions and wanting more answers. As much as we would like to know and to anticipate, once again we see that we still live in a world where the unpredictable still overshadows us in Egypt and also in the Middle East. The recent decision of President Mubarak to remain in office shocked the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were expecting him to announce his departure from office yesterday. This would have been enough proof that we ought to be careful about predicting the future. Now we read reports that he has, in fact, left for his summer home in the Sinai abdicating his authority to the military. No oracles here, not even the chief of the CIA!
The Torah portion this week describes the ritual objects the Tabernacle including some which provided divine guidance about future events. The high priest consulted the Urim and the Tummim. No one can translate these words accurately but they represent the oracle that the high priest used in determining God’s will concerning the fate of the Jewish people. Would that we could find those shinny stones that enlightened the Priesthood and the prophet Moses. We surely could use them today given the high stakes for the outcome in Egypt and the repercussions down the road towards Israel.
Are the reasons our ancestors depended on this oracle then and other rituals the same as why we need religious rites and rituals today? The answer is yes. The basic character of human beings is the same. We need rituals to balance between our need to control our world or at least our own lives knowing full well that we can never know for sure what is in store for us. Religious rituals are the way we communicate with God and persuade the Almighty to give us an equal playing field in coping with an unpredictable world.
We should not forget how important ritual objects are in preserving history. The entire Torah portion for this week is all about the holy vestments of the priest as well as the ordination ceremony of the priests in the Tabernacle. In addition the portion discusses the mitzvah of lighting the perpetual light in the Tabernacle. All of these traditions commemorate the Israelite past as they are starting a brand new faith tradition.
At the same time we see that part of what religion is about is figuring out the Divine Will. We want to know what God wants us to do in our human affairs. Something inside us says, “Go ask God for a sign when we aren’t sure about the right step to take in dealing with a difficult situation.” Yes we believe in one god. The intellectual side of our brains says that life is arbitrary. The emotional side asks, “How can we harness divine power to predict the actions of our adversaries before they descend upon us?” There is a part of us that wants a short cut or just maybe access to divine insider information to know what will happen to us before it actually occurs.
According to the Rabbis the Midrash describes just how the person petitioned the Urim and the Thummim. The High Priest would face the ark and the questioner stood behind him. If he prayed from the heart, the Holy Spirit would envelop the priest at once. He would look into the ephod and do so with prophetic insight, seeing the letters on the Urim and Thummim facing him with “Yes” or “No.” And thus he would answer. People would not ask two questions at once, but one after the other.
What we know about these two oracle objects is very little. We never read of one instance in the Torah of Moses consulting the Urm and the Thummim. Moses’ successor Joshua was ordered to request of his high priest Eleazar to receive an oracle from them before going to war. The most dramatic example of the use of the Urim and Thummim was in ISam 14:40 when Saul had put a curse on anyone whoudl eat during the battle, but Jonathan, not knowing of the curse, had tasted honey. In a public inquiry, Saul asked, apparently through Urim and Thummim for the guilty party and the lot pointed to Jonathan.
The Urim may have been stones were employed like a dice. Scholars tell us that after the Babylonian exile they fell into disuse. Judges and priests were available to render judgment in these kinds of matter. Even the historian Josephus in the 1century CE reported that the Uurim and Thummim had not been used for two hundred years.
While we do not have an accurate translation the popular definition is light and right. The Septuagint called the lots “brightness and perfection and the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, translated these words as “teaching and truth.”
Rituals like the Urim and the Thummim impose order on reality. They give us structure and preserve a communal memory as well as an individual one. Religious rituals instill confidence and security in a world that often feels quite the opposite. Religious rituals remind us that cultures need stability to keep at arm’s length the unpredictable will and temperament of the Eternal One. In a way rituals give the opportunity to operate by a system of rules that even God must respect and follow. It is like creating an equal playing field for God and humankind.
Today we still value these traditions. We preserve the chain of tradition for people who claim they are descendants of the Temple priest. Even their assistants, the Levites, know that they are from a great line too. So many rituals in Jewish law exist for the purpose of preserving the Temple sacrificial tradition even if no one expects it will ever again return. It is comforting and it reminds us where we have been.
I cannot help but wonder if Honi Mubarak saw himself as the incarnate symbolic exemplar of the Pharonic dynasty which was why he initially insisted to stay on despite the opposition of the people of Egypt. Was he the priest and Pharaoh of Egypt in his mind? Did he have an oracle to consult that suddenly led him to change his mind after making his speech last night that he would never leave his office prematurely? Maybe the lesson is that the people will give leadership a lot of room to govern and even give up a degree of autonomy. But if that leader abuses his people, no matter how many years they ruled or what traditions they claim to uphold because of their God ordained or self ordained role, the people will tear them down.
God may ordain the priesthood but it is up to the person to earn the respect from their work. Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron appointed to be their father’s heir apparent, were destroyed by a divine fire when they did not follow god’s rules on burning a sacrifice. Hosni Mubarak was a modern high priest who as president of Egypt, apparently crossed over a line with his people, long suffering Egyptians, to the point where his priestly role no longer could protect him. Then it was time to go.
The Middle East as well as Egypt and Israel are always unpredictable. We could always use a reliable Urim and Thummim for guidance on Egypt’s future as well as Israel’s well being. Like our biblical ancestors, we just do not know how effective the oracles of the past were nor are we aware of any oracles today. I am afraid we shall have to stay tuned.