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The Power of Tumim

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

It must have been very convenient for the Kohein Gadol to have the power of the Urim and Tumim at his disposal. Whenever he needed to know something important, all he had to do was put on the Choshen Mishpat, the Breastplate of Judgment into which were set precious jewels representing all the Jewish tribes, and ask a question. Lights would flash, and an answer would appear. This is what I thought when I was a young child. The reality was not quite so simple.

The Ramban explains that the Divine message was received through a combination of the Urim and Tumim powers. The message used the letters of the names of the tribes engraved on the stones of the Choshen Mishpat. When the Kohein Gadol asked his question, a number of letters would light up. This was the power of Urim. But those letters still needed to be arranged and deciphered. A set of holy Names also appeared. These provided the Kohein Gadol with a special ability to decipher the message, called the power of Tumim, akin to ruach hakodesh, Divine inspiration.

Sometimes, the Kohein Gadol erred in his interpretation. For instance, we are told (I Samuel 1:13) that Eli Hakohein made a serious error regarding Chanah, the prophet Shmuel's mother. The Gaon of Vilna explains that the letters shin, kaf, resh and heh lit up. They spelled out the word kesheirah, worthy woman. But Eli thought they spelled out the word shikorah, drunken woman, and he treated her as such. At that precise moment, Eli did not have the power of Tumim.

The Beis Av explains the modern-day form of the Urim and Tumim. There are many people who are great in Torah. When they are presented with a question, they look into the Torah, and many words, verses and passages light up for them. They see the lights, and they feel confident they can interpret their message. But this is only the power of the Urim, the lights. Only a few people in each generation also have the power of Tumim, which gives then the ability to interpret the lights correctly. They are the ones that have true daas Torah. They can discover the Divine message by looking into the Torah.

A profound example of the Urim without the Tumim can be found in story of the prophet Shmuel and King Shaul (I Samuel 15). Shmuel told Shaul in the Name of Hashem to destroy Amalek, to wipe them out, man, woman, child and all the animals, from camels to donkeys. But Shaul disobeyed. He allowed Agag, the Amalekite king, to live, and he did not kill the animals that could be used for sacrifices to Hashem. For these failures, he would lose his throne.

The next day, Shmuel came, and Shaul went out to greet him. What would we expect him to say to Shmuel? "I'm sorry. I made a terrible mistake. I know I should have followed your instructions, but I was overcome by misplaced mercy." That is what one might have expected, but incredibly he said, "I have fulfilled the word of Hashem."

What was Shaul thinking? Did he expect to fool Shmuel? How could he claim to have fulfilled the word of Hashem?

Clearly, Shaul believed he had indeed fulfilled Hashem's will. He was great in Torah, and somehow, he arrived at a different interpretation of the instructions he received from Shmuel. This is the classic example of having the power of Urim but not the power of Tumim. And so, he could in all honesty tell Shmuel he had fulfilled the word of Hashem, at least according to his understanding. And yet, he was completely wrong.

At the end of Sefer Shoftim, we read about one of the most sordid affairs in Jewish history, the story of "pilegesh b'Givah," the concubine of Givah. Without getting into the details, suffice it to say that one thing led to another, and soon all the tribes were filled with righteous anger and mobilized against the lonesome tribe of Binyamin. There was a war, and the tribe of Binyamin was just about wiped out. Afterwards, they realized they had gone too far and tried to make amends to revive the stricken tribe.

How could such a thing happen? How could the well-meaning tribes of the Jewish people make such a mistake that an entire tribe was nearly eradicated forever?

The answer lies in the last verse of Sefer Shoftim, "In those days, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased." Here is the problem. People can have the best intentions, the most righteous motivations, they can see the lights in the Torah and read in those lights support for their own opinions, but all that is no more than the Urim. If they do not have to answer to a higher authority, if they are not compelled to seek the guidance of sages who also have the power of Tumim, they can make tragic errors. If there is no king in Israel, if there is no bona fide leader who possesses the power of Tumim, if each individual can do as he pleases, then even the best and the brightest can easily go astray.

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