We hear a lot of talk about the value of stepping outside our current comfort zones. The Urim ve-Tumim introduced in Parshat Tetzaveh give many Orthodox Jews a chance for such stretching, since they convey a truth about Judaism’s view of the world which would make many Orthodox Jews of my acquaintance uncomfortable.
What They Were
For all the Torah speaks very directly and explicitly about these Urim ve-Tumim, in verse 28;30, details are more elusive. They were inserted into the choshen, the breastplate which was one of the special garments the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore, setting them apart from rank and file kohanim. Ramban understands the Torah to mean Moshe inserted a piece of paper into the Choshen, with Hashem’s most explicit Name written on it [this is not the place to consider the power, role, and function of divine Names, even were I qualified to tackle it]. He inserted it while Aharon was already wearing it, Ramban thinks, meaning the Urim ve-Tumim are added to a functioning choshen, separate from the choshen itself.
Once infused with the Urim, the stones of the choshen (engraved with the names of the tribes as well as other words to round out the Hebrew alphabet) would light up in response to a question posed to it by a king or other leader of the entire Jewish people. (In contrast to a prophet, the choshen responded only to questions on the national scale.)
However, according to Ramban, the letters lit up only le-‘einav, to his eyes, as the verse says, meaning someone other than the serving kohen would not have seen them light up. Already, the process leaves room for skeptics to doubt the messages conveyed.
As another challenge to universal acceptance of the Urim’s instructions, the letters lit all at once, creating multiple options for how to read them (the various anagrams of the letters). Ramban offers an example of the confusion this could create—at the beginning of the book of Shofetim, Judges, the Jews asked Hashem what tribe should lead them into war. Ramban shows how the response, Yehudah ya’aleh, Yehudah shall go up, can be rearranged to form other words, too.
To know the correct reading, Ramban thinks the kohen would focus on the Tumim, whose power made the kohen’s heart whole (from tamim, whole), and he would know what Hashem had said.
How Hashem Has Reached Us Over the Years
Ramban considers it a level of access to the Divine Spirit, lower than prophecy but greater than the bat kol (the disembodied divine Voice) which Jews of the Second Temple era heard when Hashem wished to communicate directly with them. (He also thinks the Urim ve-Tumim were a sort of consolation prize to Aharon for having been leapfrogged by his younger brother. Denied the leadership, he and his descendants received lasting quasi-prophecy, where Moshe’s stopped with him.)
The Urim ve-Tumim remind us Hashem never meant the Jewish people to make their way in the world based only on traditions of what we were once told. When Devarim 28;29 warns us our punishments for failure to obey Hashem’s Will will put us in the position of groping at noon as a blind person gropes in the dark, part of that groping, I suggest, stems from losing the prophetic guidance we once had.
We lost the Urim ve-Tumim with the destruction of the first Temple, prophecy with Malachi, in the early stages of the second Temple, and we lost bat kols with the destruction of the second Temple. Later Jews have claimed to still hear from Hashem. Some Tosafists were referred to as ha-navi, the prophet, some Jews had maggidim (R. Yosef Caro, author of Shulchan Aruch, wrote Maggid Meisharim, a record of the lessons his maggid, divine visitor, taught him), and some in dreams (R. Ya’akov of Marvege wrote Shu”t min Ha-Shamayim, answers he received in his sleep to halachic questions he posed). Down to kabbalists or Hasidic rebbes today.
Communication Wasn’t Meant to be a One–Way Street
Not everyone believes in all the modes of communication I just named, nor do I, but some of them are clearly parts of any traditional Jewish worldview. Devarim 18;15 tells us Hashem will set up prophets throughout history, to let us know Hashem’s Will; the last chapter of Divrei Ha-Yamim blames the loss of prophecy on the Jewish people’s refusal to heed those prophets, their instead insulting Hashem’s messengers and reviling their words.
Worse than having lost these windows into what Hashem wants of us at specific moments in history, I suspect many today prefer the silence, prefer to be able to decide they know what Hashem wants, enjoy the freedom from having to confront their resistance to authority, no matter how Divine.
That’s not the way it was supposed to be, as we see when we think of the workings of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and the High Priest who staffed it.