The Choshen Mishpat, Amalek & the Power of One — Rav Yisrael Krengel
This week’s parsha focuses on the “bigdei kehunah” – the clothes of theKohanim. These garments were worn by the Kohanim not only in theMishkan in the desert, but also later on in the Beit Hamikdash.
The main garment worn by the Kohen Gadol, the “choshen mishpat” (breastplate), is described in detail in Shmot 28:15-30. It was made of material which was doubled over. Inside the fold was the “Urim VeTumim” – the full names of God. On the front were twelve precious stones of various colours, placed in four rows of three. The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the stones.
It is clear from Bamidbar 27:21 that the Choshen Mishpat was not merely clothing, but also served another important function. When a leader of the nation desired to ask God for help in making an important decision, for example whether to go out to war, he would come to the Kohen Gadolin order to present the question. God would then answer him through theChoshen Mishpat. (See Shmuel I 30:7-8 for an example of such an incident.)
What is the deeper symbolism behind this important garment?
In order to understand this, let us first establish exactly how God communicated via the Choshen Mishpat. The gemara in Yoma 73b cites an argument in this regard: Raish Lakish explains that the letters comprising the names of the tribes would join together to form the words which God was communicating. Rabbi Yochanan on the other hand, holds that the required letters would light up in their places, without moving. According to this latter opinion, how did the Kohen Gadol know the correct ordering of these lit up letters?
The Ramban (Shmot 28:30) explains that there were in fact two sets of the names of Hashem. The Kohen Gadol would initially have to concentrate on the first set, the “Urim”, and only then would the letters light up in their places. Immediately, the Kohen would then focus on the second set, the “Tumim”, in order to understand in his heart how to combine the letters correctly so that they would spell the words that God was communicating. Based on this Ramban, the Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu;Shemuel I;153) explains how Eli HaKohen mistakenly read the Urim Vetumim as “Shikorah” instead of “KeSara” in reference to Chana.
Through this Ramban, we may also discover the message of the Chosen Mishpat. Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:7) explains that God’s oneness is unique – He is completely “One”, as opposed to anything in the physical world (which is either a singular instance of something which may exist in the plural, or a single entity made up of several components). The Rambam feels that physicality implies divisibility. As an analogy we may compare God to a pure white light. The physical world functions as a prism, which divides and reveals this white light as the colours of the rainbow. The colours of the rainbow symbolise the various ways through which we can bring God into the physical world. This is the purpose of Am Yisrael, and specifically the division of the nation into twelve tribes. Each tribe had its own colour, reflected in its own coloured stone on the Chosen Mishpat which represented its unique character (see Rav Hirsch onBereishit 17:6).
This helps us to understand the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan. The only way God enters this world is by “lighting up the letters in their place” – i.e. through the light of each specific colour of each tribe. However, to reveal “Hashem Echad” in this world, we have to show how all these colours do in fact work together as the complete refraction of the white light in this world. This is why the Ramban insists that the letters lighting up are incomprehensible unless the Kohen Gadol combines them together correctly. Aharon and the Kohanim epitomise the concept of unity (seePirkei Avot 1:12).
It is the Kohen Gadol who combines the various colours in order to bring God – Hashem Echad – into the world. The Torah stresses three times (Shmot 28:29-31) that the Choshen Mishpat was placed on Aharon‘s heart (and likewise on the heart of each successive Kohen Gadol).
Today we lack the Choshen Mishpat. However, its message is even more important in our times. All of us – each with his colour – must strive to reveal the “white light” of God in this world. But this can only be achieved if we constantly work on the vital ingredient – unity, the combination of all the colours together.
This theme of unity is especially pertinent as we enter Shabbat Zachor and Purim. The Sefat Emet on Purim in 5634, asks the question why Purim was chosen as the time for Mishloach Manot and Matanot L’evyonim? He answers that the power of unity is the force that defeats Amalek, and therefore destroying Amalek hinges upon love between fellow Jews.
The Sefat Emet points out this theme in three different places in Megillat Esther. When Mordechai commands Esther to appear before Achashveirosh, she insists that he gather all the Jews together (4:16-“kenos et kol hayehudim”) to fast and pray for her. She realized that their lives depended upon the unity between them all. In chapter 9:16, when the Jews defend themselves against their enemy it uses the language “nikhalu”, they gathered together to defend themselves. And finally, Mordechai is described as “Ish Yehudi” meaning Yechidi to symbolize that he was singular in his ability to join all the Jews as one. That is why we celebrate Purim with mitzvot that unify us as a nation.
If we are unified, then we are making our way to the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash.
May we all merit to see the Choshen Mishpat on the heart of the Kohen Gadol bimherah beyameinu.