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Tetzaveh, Rolling the Dice and Making War

In ancient times the High Priest, and the priests, never dressed down. He was always dressed in finery and adorned with jewels, especially on his breastpiece. In fact, the hoshen mishpat, the breastpiece of decision contained twelve different stones, one for each of the twelve tribes: carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli and jasper. I will leave it to the jewelers (as well as the bejeweled) members of our congregation to help further define these precious and semi-precious jewels.

Within this breastpiece was a unique fortune telling device: the Urim and Thummim. “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 Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:30) We know very little about the Urim and Thummim. The evidence within the Bible is inconsistent and unclear. They are introduced here in such a manner that they appear well known to the ancient ear. Yet there is not a single instance when their use is described in the Torah. We have only scant references in other biblical books.

How they were used, when they were used and why they were used remains shrouded in mystery. We can however surmise several things about their use. They were only used to help make decisions of national importance. In fact they were most particularly used to decide whether or not to wage war. Judaism codified two types of war: milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war of for example, self-defense and milchemet reshut, a permitted war to expand a nation’s territory. The Urim and Thummim were employed to justify a leader’s decision to wage a permitted war. This rolling of the dice or casting of lots would help to support what might appear to be an arbitrary decision to the nation’s citizens or more accurately, its subjects.

When waging war, whether the leader is elected as in the case of modern times, or royalty as in ancient times, the support of the masses and even more importantly, the soldiers is of critical importance. When it is a war of self-defense their support is natural and expected. This is why our wars are always framed with this language. Even the Vietnam War was portrayed as critical to stop, or as some argued slow, the advance of the Communist menace. It was natural to wrap the war in Afghanistan in this robe of self-defense. Not only were we justified in pursuing our attackers but we had an obligation to prevent future attacks. And so we marched to war in Afghanistan.

With regard to the war in Iraq it was more difficult to make this case, although this is why the WMD argument became so important. Our leaders argued that it was likewise a case of self-defense. Our country, however, never became unified around this argument. I wonder if the nation would have remained more united if we had shared a faith in oracular devices such as the Urim and Thummim. Imagine how our country might be different if the High Priest stood before the nation and reached within the breastpiece of decision and threw the Urim and Thummim to the ground. It came up Thummim and so we discerned that God too had weighed in and supported our leader’s decision to wage war.

Imagine. And the people oohed and aahed. Together they nodded in agreement. They turned to their sons, hugged them goodbye and silently watched as they readied themselves for war. Our nation stood together. It remain unified.

Still there remain other oracles we wish to discern. Who among these young men might return from the battlefield? Who among them will instead return with lifelong injuries and wounds? And who among them will return with scars in their hearts?

We do not know. We cannot know. Let us ask the Urim and Thummim.

Would that decisions were as simple, and unifying, as the casting of lots.