top of page
  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

Tetzaveh: To Divine From the Heart

The Emblem of Yale University, using the phrase “Urim v’Thummim” from this week’s parsha

“Inside the breastplate you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord.”

Ex. 28:29

The Urim and Thummim are something that is rarely discussed in the Reform Jewish world, although they have great importance both theologically and mystically. They additionally are a clear demonstration about the use of mystical objects of power and the practice of divination.

Often mistranslated as “lights and truths”, these were much more. While many academics trace the roots of the Hebrew to mean “cursed and faultless”, they are significantly more than just a tool to establish innocence or guilt. They were stones or pouches placed in the ephod (breastplate) of the High Priest, and while we learn of their usage in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 14:41), their true purpose is found in their description in this week’s text. And although they are lost, they are still valuable teachings that we can embrace today.

We learn in both Samuel and throughout the Talmud that these items were used very specifically. They were over the High Priest’s heart while he was facing the Holy of Holies, a question would be asked, and the stones would give the answer to the High Priest. Similar to a Jewish form of the I Ching, the stones would glow or move in ways that the answer would be revealed. Often it would be as a “yes or no” answer, but there are also discussions about each stone lighting up in a way that actual words would be revealed letter by letter. These tools of divination would answer questions not only about the present but also about the future path that should be taken.

But Judaism is a path that repeatedly teaches throughout the Talmud that a person only needs to listen to God directly, so why is so much time spent on ancient divination tools, and why should we care in the 21st century? The answer is found in the literal understanding of this week’s text. They are to be “over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord”.

Our decisions are affected by our intellect, but the text shows us a clear reminder that the important decisions in life must involve our hearts and spirit and never be purely intellectual. The Urim and Thummim were to be placed over Aaron’s heart, and specifically at those times when he “comes before the Lord” in vulnerability and openness. The Talmud, as well as Josephus, discuss how the questions would be answered by great lights shining from the stones themselves toward the Ark (Bavli Yoma 73, Yerushalmi 44). In other words, a question would be asked to the High Priest, whose heart was open, and an answer would be received through that open heart. Divination came not through the mind, but through the heart and spirit.

People, including Jews, often view Judaism as a “religion of the head” because of the many disputations that occur in the Talmud and beyond, and because of a cultural proclivity for argumentation. But although we filter information through our minds, Judaism is actually a faith tradition based on decisions of the heart. Although our practices are based on the mind, our spirituality is found significantly more in our feelings.

We see this in this text, which gives us lots of heady information about what to do and how to do it (the clothing, furniture, etc. needed to create the holy space), but ultimately reminds us that holy inspired divination stems from the heart. And we also see this teaching in the structure of the entire Torah scroll.

The last letter of the Torah is a lamed, an “l” (the last word is “Israel”). The first letter of the Torah is a vet, a “v” or “b” (the first word is “Bereshit”, meaning “in the beginning”). Our Sages have expounded upon this to understand that we should see these last and first letters as a single word: “lev”, which means “heart”. For thousands of years we have learned that it is the “heart” which connects and ties the Torah together, and the Torah is to open our hearts. Although the intellect is extremely important, it has its place. While influenced by the mind, it is the connection of feelings and spirituality that needs to be the basis of our decision making.

May we all find the balance between mind and feelings; between intellect and experienced spirituality. In so doing, may each of us remember to integrate our feelings and spirit into our inspired decisions.

Kavannah: Look at how you make decisions, and are they inspired or purely intellectual. Incorporate your feelings, passions, and openness to God’s inspiration as you determine decisions this week, and notice how that affects your perspective on life.

Rabbi Michael Barclay

February 11th, 2022

10th of Adar 1, 5782


bottom of page