MOSES GOES TO YALE
This week’s Torah tale, ‘Tetzave’ – Hebrew for ‘Command’ continues to outline the couture of the tabernacle team, just in case you haven’t had enough of the red carpet coverage of the Oscars. This year, the text is linked to yet another high drama – the scroll of Queen Esther, which will be publicly chanted on Saturday nights to the sound of groggers. Purim, the Jewish Carnival, owes its name to the Babylonian word ‘Puru’ – ‘lottery’, an etymological and historical nod to the pagan origin of the holiday and its namesake. Originally marked as Babylonian New Year, Puru was celebrated with drinking, masks, and a ritualized lottery in which the fates of the coming year were divined, presided over by Ishtar and Marduk – top-ranking deities. Intriguing elements of fate, lottery, and the seemingly random turn of events are part of the Purim story, where Esther and Mordechai preside (replacing Ishtar and Marduk) But as fate would have it – Esther has more to do with this week’s torah text, and especially to the lost Hebraic art of fortune-telling, a skill conducted by the High Priest using a weird an object whose precise purpose may have been lost in translation.
Chapter 28 in Exodus describes the High Priests’ elaborate uniform, complete with a golden breastplate, decorated with twelve gemstones for the twelve tribes of Israel. This device is not just decorative – it is a functional, wearable, very expensive and very beautiful communication device:
“Place in the breastplate the Urim and Tummim, and they will be over Aaron’s heart when he comes before God. Aaron will carry the judgment of the Children of Israel.”
‘Urim and Thummim’ is not translated into any of the known English versions of the Bible, leaving the reader to rely on footnotes and classic commentary. Most opinions agree that this is the name for a fortune telling apparatus, used by the High Priest as vehicle to determine major policy decisions, straight from God. Various oracles are not unusual in religious societies, then and now – Tibetan practices, for instance, comes to mind. Literally translated, ‘Urim’ means ‘Lights’ and ‘Thummim’ may mean ‘Perfect’ or ‘Truth’. In the Biblical book of Samuel, for instance, the device is used as a binary oracle – responding to people’s questions with a ‘yes or no’ output – activating several of the gemstones to ‘light up the truth’. Do we go to war? Who is the next leader? Questions like these and others seem to have been reserved for the oracle’s usage though it is possible that more mundane issues of mass appeal were addressed as well (‘who will win best actor?’) Eventually, mysteriously, the device vanished and its usage discontinued. But the obscure technology lingers, surprisingly; The Urim and Thummin have become an essential part of Mormon symbolism, supposedly used by Joseph Smith to received revelation and translate unknown tongues. And they also showed up in New Haven – prominently displayed on the Yale Universality Shield – where, since 1736 the Hebrew motto has been translated in Latin as ‘Lux et Veritas’ – ‘Light and Truth’.
High priest, Mormon prophet, Persian Queen, or Yale grad, all share the human desire to meet – or to become – the oracle – to know what’s ahead. But then comes Purim, an obligatory non-sense driven holiday, on which we are instructed to precisely not know – not know what is ahead or behind, right or wrong, good or bad. Purim is a rude holiday, marking the ‘as if’ lottery of existence, the randomness of life, the chaos which is the ups and downs of reality – come what may. Maybe.
The moon if full this coming weekend, the oracle of the High Priest meets the mask of Purim: a sacred arsenal of truth seeking tools, conveniently packaged for efficient use. Light up, find truth. Have somebody drive you home!