Back in the ‘60s, Ouija boards became a fad. At parties, people would close their eyes, appear to be in a trance and move the little planchette across this board with numbers and letters to “discover mysteries from beyond.” Talking boards or automatic writing have been known since antiquity, especially in the Far East, but the modern incarnation was patented in 1891. But in the late ‘60s, big toy manufacturers bought the rights to the name Ouija (Hasbro still owns the name). There are those who claim that a psychophysiological effect, called “ideomotor response” (akin to self-hypnosis), is causing the person to produce the messages, which are revealing about the practitioner. Were these party games or were people receiving information from some occult source? That’s an important question, because as a parlor game it’s pretty innocuous, but as a source for messages from beyond, many Christian groups (including the Roman Catholic Church) railed against them. I really don’t know, but, in my experience, the more the player had drunk the funnier the results were. I mention this phenomenon this week because it sounds strangely like what the breastplate of the of kohen gadol used to do in the first-Temple period.
When major national issues arose, the king or the prophet was authorized to approach the kohen gadol and inquire of God. This kohen was adorned with the choshen, or the breastplate. This garment was embroidered with precious threads and attached to the apron-like ephod. Into this breastplate was placed the urim v’tumim, which contained gemstones representing the 12 tribes. When the inquiry was properly presented, the jewels would light up in a coded manner that would answer the query. Again, we are presented with a dilemma. Above I mentioned that many Christians condemned the Ouija board because it might be a “demonic possession,” but what about us? Doesn’t Judaism also prohibit enquiring of diviners or soothsayers (whom I guess are people who say “sooth”)? The answer is an emphatic “yes.” This prohibition is enshrined numerous times in our Torah; here’s one: Don’t turn to psychics or mediums to get help. That will make you unclean. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:31). So, how can we use the urim v’tumim?
As you might have guessed, there are many answers to that question, and I’d like to share two. The first, and simplest, is that whenever we have some sort of lottery or divination process we are told to do it “before God.” When we realize that the answers to our prayers, problems and probes come only from God, we’re in a safe place. However, when someone might feel that solutions or remedies to our crises can be found or obtained through any other source, then we have transgressed this prohibition and have wandered into a spiritual abyss.
There’s another way of understanding this matter. What do the two words urim v’tumim mean? Urim means “lights” and refers to getting enlightenment from God, gathering Divine knowledge. The other word, tumim, means perfection or innocence and refers to the recipient. For the process to work we require an effective receiver for the light emanating from God. That’s why the verse (Exodus 28:30) states that the apparatus must be worn over the heart of the kohen gadol. Only when his heart is tumim does the process work.
We have a famous incident in the book of Samuel when the breastplate didn’t work correctly. When the kohen gadol Eli inquired about Chana, the mother of Shmuel, when she was praying in the Mishkan at Shilo, he got the Hebrew letters shin, cof, reish, hey, which he read as shikora, or “she’s drunk.” He wasn’t in the proper place vis-a-vis God to understand that the true message was k’sheira—“she is worthy (TB Brachot 31a). The light was getting through from on high, but Eli wasn’t the proper receiver to interpret the message correctly.
Rav Yissachar Frand of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore adds a beautiful insight to this tale. He explains that we have, in our times, plenty of urim, information. After all, we live in the Information Age. This is also true in the Torah world. We have large numbers of people studying Torah, and we are publishing works of Torah in unprecedented numbers and variety. What we’re lacking is tumim, people with the spiritual sensitivity to interpret Torah and guide the generation to the proper conclusions. The people must seek out those few individuals whose hearts are working as well as their minds. For the kohen, it isn’t that the clothes make the man; it’s the synthesis of the personality and the clothing that produce the distinctive result that we seek.
And this brings us to Purim. Purim is also about clothes. We have a strong tradition of dressing up on Purim. Why? Well, there are a lot of costumes in the Megilla. Of course, we’d like to emulate the celebratory ride of Mordechai dressed like a king. But more profoundly, Esther spends the whole tale hidden behind a façade of beauty and Persian culture that belie that her heart resonates with Jewish heritage and spirit. But again, as in the cohen gadol and the urim v’tumim, the disguises that we don should reflect an inner reality. The disguise shouldn’t be to shock or upset the observer, but to enhance the joy and comity of the occasion.
According to our tradition, clothing has existed since the Garden of Eden. But what is the purpose of our garb? We have two words for clothes. Levush, which seems connected to busha, or embarrassment, allows us to see the inner reality of the person in question. The other term is beged, which comes from the word for treachery or treason. These garments hide the reality of the wearer from all observers. We want to use our clothing to enhance our standing in the community. We want to honestly represent ourselves. We want to become Esther, who bares her soul and emerges as a Jewish butterfly from her Persian chrysalis. May your Purim be joyous and revealing!
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. He is a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivot Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.