One of the biggest reasons why I am such a proponent of Judaism is because it is a pragmatic tradition. It accepts humanity as we are, while also setting up the structures, rituals and traditions to help us aspire to become our best selves. It also recognizes the messiness of life by establishing a system of ethics that, rather than being black or white, provides guidance in the grey areas. This is the vision of Judaism that was of particular interest to the founders of what was to become the Reform Movement. They wanted a tradition based in rationality and logic and tended to shy away from anything that did not fall into this framework.
All that being said, there are also many mystical and magical elements to be found in Judaism. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we find the instructions for consecrating Aaron and his sons to serve as the priests for all of Israel. In addition, we also find the instructions for how the Israelites were to make their priestly garments. One of these garments was the chosen ha-mishpat, the breastpiece of decision. Contained in this breastpiece, worn by Aaron, would be the Urim and Thummim. As it teaches in Exodus, “Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28:30).
The challenge is that the Urim and Thummim are never explained. They were devices used to ascertain the Divine will, but what they were exactly, are never mentioned in the Torah. What we do know is that Moses did not reference them because he had a direct line to God. Mostly we read about them in the Neviim section of the Hebrew Bible before they disappear into the midst of history. Josephus, when writing his history of the Jews mentioned that the Urim and Thummim had not been used for at least two hundred years. However, they were important enough to be mentioned not only in this week’s Torah portion but in other sections of the Bible.
The lingering question is: how do we reconcile a pragmatic and structured tradition with the magical and mystical elements that appear throughout our tradition? For example, there is not only the Urim and Thummim, there is also the red string to keep away the evil eye. There is also a tradition of amulets with God’s name written upon them for blessing, health, and protection to name a few.
The answer is that humans are both rational and irrational. We are logical and we are illogical. We believe in free will, but we also believe in fate and destiny. We believe in the chaos and uncertainty of life, but also in whispering the names of illnesses, as to keep them far away from us. Or to put it another way, we are reminded that life is messy and complicated.
This reality has been exposed all the more so during the pandemic. We are all trying so hard to make the best choices we can while struggling with the continued overwhelming desire to have our lives back as they were; even though we know, in our hearts, that this is not possible, at least not yet.
There is very little certainly in the world, and that answers to the big questions will always be elusive. Nonetheless, our tradition is clear, we still have an obligation to strive to make the world more holy and more just and more safe. With that in mind, let’s all metaphorically put on our breastpieces of decision, take hold of our Urim and Thummim, and our actual masks, and march forward, determined, even if the future is uncertain.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff