Parashat Tetzaveh

Multiplicity Of Meanings

The high priest's breastplate reminds us of the numerous ways to understand text and reality if we free ourselves to question normative readings and consider interpretations from new perspectives.

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The obvious implication, of course, is that the meaning communicated by the reading which we decide upon as normative is only one of many possible meanings, each with its own power and profundity, which are lost to us in the process of arriving at the 'right' meaning, but available to us if we choose to leave behind the traditional reading and search for a different one. Is this the particular nature of divine texts, divine communications? Or, is this the nature of all texts? Is the measure of a text's divinity precisely its ability to not mean one specific thing but, rather, to communicate a multiplicity of meaning?

Having learned this destabilizing lesson from the process of the Urim and the Tummim, we can turn to our earlier question. The Breastplate of Judgment was seen to have, in addition to its oracular function, another function, that of atoning for mistakes in judgment by the courts of law. How did it do that? And, how did the Breastplate do these two apparently different things; atone for poor judgment as well as dispense correct judgment? How did these two roles co-exist?

Might we not suggest that the model presented to us by the Urim and Tummim of a text which, rather than being solid, clear, and immutable, is, in fact, slippery, suggestive, and full of possibilities, is one that is also relevant for any and all attempts to make meaning?

Are not judges, when trying to arrive at the truth in a case, called upon to interpret reality in the same way that a text must be interpreted; knowing all the while that the meaning they arrive at in their reading of reality is only one of myriad possible meanings? Is it not the case that there is no guarantee that their reading is the 'right' one?

It is this very knowledge, this understanding of the multiplicity of meaning, implied by the workings of the Urim and Tummim in the Breastplate of Judgment, which serves as an atonement for an incorrect judgment, for a poor reading by the judges of the reality which they were called upon to determine. For the high priest, after all, has the Tummim, with which he can hope to get the inspiration necessary to arrive at a true meaning of the message of the Urim, the lit up letters. We, in our attempts to wrest meaning from a confused and confusing world, have no such built-in assistance.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.