The Two Davids

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on March 25, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

After finishing its discussion of the various types of sacrifices, our parshah turns its attention to the investiture of Aaron and his sons into the Priesthood, in Chapter 8 of Leviticus. Moses brings Aaron forward, and begins to dress him in the uniform of High Priest that we read about a few weeks ago in Parashat Tetzaveh:

7He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. 8He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thummim.

A good deal of speculation has been written about exactly what the Urim and Thummim were. In his commentary on Leviticus that appears in the JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, New York and Jerusalem: JPS, 1989), Baruch Levine begins his discussion of them by saying, "The meanings of these terms, as well as the objects they designate, remain elusive." In 1997, Cornelius van Dam, a Christian theologian, expanded his doctoral dissertation into a full length book, entitled Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997). Some of the notions I am advancing here are from Dr. van Dam’s research.

.* * * * *

In the winter of 1947-1948, David Ben Gurion was a busy man. The UN had voted on partition, and already there was fighting with the surrounding Arabs. Ben Gurion had to simultaneously make plans for the official establishment of the State, prepare for the war everyone knew would follow, and deal with the fighting as it came up.

During these trying days, he was also called on, from time to time, to put in appearances at "state" functions. And so it happened that he was attending a diplomatic cocktail party one evening at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He had been there about 45 minutes, fulfilled his duty to his host, made small talk with the American, British, French and Russian dignitaries there, and was planning his departure when he saw the man.

The man was standing near the French doors that led out onto the patio. He was not remarkable in his dress or appearance. Though taller than Ben Gurion, he was not a particularly large man. His reddish complexion set off his brilliant eyes, and bespoke a vigorous outdoors life despite his delicate musician’s hands. Ben Gurion felt drawn to him, and started walking over.

"Shalom," the man addressed him in Hebrew.

"Shalom," responded Ben Gurion, and continued in Hebrew. "I’m..."

"...David Ben Gurion," the man finished his sentence for him. "There aren’t a lot of people who don’t know the leader of the soon-to-be Jewish State."

"You have me at a disadvantage," Ben Gurion replied, reluctant to ask the man’s name directly. "Have we met before?"

The man smiled, and started walking out on to the patio, as he said, "I’m curious about how you plan on establishing this Jewish State of yours." Ben Gurion glanced at him sharply, and the man continued disarmingly, "Oh, don’t worry. I’m not trying to ferret out any military secrets. I’m talking about the political task of forging a single nation out of such a wide range of ideologies and cultures. Although to be honest, your military challenges are interesting, as well."

"You talk as though you have some experience in this area," Ben Gurion said, as they walked off the patio and onto the grounds.

"As a matter of fact, I do, with both the political and the military tasks," the man replied, "although it’s from a long time ago." Ben Gurion glanced at him again, for the man did not appear to be much older than 40 or 50, and yet the manner in which he had said ‘a long time ago’ suggested not years, but centuries.

They sat down on a crude stone-cut bench for a few minutes, which Ben Gurion had never noticed before in these gardens. The night sky was alive with stars, because the lights of the hotel—the lights of the whole city—could not be seen from this spot. "Who are you?" Ben Gurion finally broke down and asked.

"I’m a man out of place—well, out of time, actually," he replied.

Suddenly, everything clicked in Ben Gurion’s mind. Although it couldn’t possibly be true—this was, after all, the middle of the twentieth century—it all made some sort of weird sense: his appearance, what he’d been saying, where they had met. "You’re the person this hotel was named after," Ben Gurion said. You’re..."

"...David Ben Ishai," the man finished this sentence of Ben Gurion’s as he had the earlier introduction. "And you have the difficult task, David Ben Gurion, of picking up where we failed some two thousand years ago."

"Failed? You established a dynasty that lasted 500 years," Ben Gurion objected. "You helped shape a people that survived 2000 years of exile, and is come back now poised to reestablish another Jewish State."

"With God’s help," Ben Ishai added, nodding.

"With God’s help, or without it," Ben Gurion replied, "we will found this state!"

"I don’t doubt that you will," Ben Ishai said, "but will it be the kind of state that God wants you to establish?"

Ben Gurion turned to face him directly. "Is that why you’re here tonight? To tell me what God wants?"

Ben Ishai laughed with his sweet musical voice. "You don’t need me to tell you what God wants. You have three thousand years of Torah, delivered by prophets and poets, dissected and analyzed by sages from seventy lands, summarized and codified by philosophers and rabbis, and verified now by archaeologists on every hill of this country. The answers you are looking for are in the Torah."

"I know there are answers in the Torah," Ben Gurion replied. "But not the ones I need tonight. How do I deploy my troops tomorrow? Where is the next battle going to be? That’s the kind of answer you got—straight from God. God told you to attack the Philistines at Keilah (1 Samuel 23:2), and He told you to pursue the Amalekite raiders of Tziklag (1 Samuel 30:8). Those were direct answers that you got to specific questions. I wouldn’t mind some of those answers."

"Yes, well that was then and this is now," Ben Ishai said. "There is no more Urim and Thummim. You’ll have to rely on God’s revealed Truth, distilled through three thousand years of human wisdom."

Ben Gurion paused for a few minutes and thought. He knew that the reason for this vision, this conversation with King David that was taking place out of normal space and time, was to sort through the decisions he had to make concerning the establishment of the State and its defense. It didn’t really matter to him if this vision had been sent by God, or by his own fertile imagination; he knew that was the purpose. Who better to talk with about these issues than King David, who had faced the very same issues, who had had to fight for the very same land? And yet, the Bible scholar in him couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

"Urim and Thummim?" he asked. "You used dice to make those decisions?"

If Ben Ishai was surprised by the direction Ben Gurion had decided to take the conversation, he didn’t show it. "The Urim and Thummim wasn’t dice or lots. It was a prophecy stone, a gem for consulting God. It was very old, from before Moshe Rabeinu. According to legend, it was used by Avraham Avinu. When the priesthood was established, it was given to Aaron. A special compartment was made for it in the breastplate of the ephod—the tunic—that the High Priest wore."

"But how did it really work?"

"The king would ask a question of the Priest. The Priest, holding the gemstone in his hand, would relay God’s answer. And the gem would confirm the answer. If the light was glowing from the gem, you knew that the Priest’s answer came directly from God. No light, no answer. In fact, that’s how it got its name: Urim and Thummim means ‘light and truth’ or ‘light and perfection.’ For example, let’s go back and look at one of those episodes you referred to a minute ago. About the battle with the Philistines at Keilah. What does it say about that in the Bible?"

Ben Gurion quoted the beginning of 1 Samuel 23 from memory:

1David was told: "The Philistines are raiding Keilah and plundering the threshing floors." 2David consulted the Lord, "Shall I go and attack those Philistines?" And the Lord said to David, "Go; attack the Philistines and you will save Keilah." 3But David’s men said to him, "Look, we are afraid here in Judah, how much more if we go to Keilah against the forces of the Philistines!" 4So David consulted the Lord again, and the Lord answered him, "March down at once to Keilah, for I am going to deliver the Philistines into your hands."

Ben Ishai nodded as Ben Gurion finished. "Well that’s about right, but a little light on the details. Let’s see if I can fill in some of the context. This happened before I became king. My father-in-law, King Saul, had become jealous of me—paranoid actually—and kept on sending troops to kill me. I had a few hundred men with me, and we were basically living like outlaws—a sort of Biblical Robin Hood. There was a priest with our band, our own Friar Tuck, named Evyatar. When Evyatar came to us, he had an ephod, that had inside the Urim and Thummim.

"When I heard that the Philistines were attacking Keilah, I wanted to help them, but I was afraid because I didn’t have a large army. So I had Evyatar bring the Ephod, and I asked the Lord, through him, whether I should attack the Philistines. The Lord answered, ‘Go for it.’

"So I turned to the men and said, ‘Let’s go,’ but they weren’t happy. They said, ‘Look, it’s scary enough for us here in Judah, our own country, where all we have to worry about is the king. But you want us to go to Keilah, up against the Philistine armies?’ So, I asked the Lord again. Now why did I do that? I didn’t change the wording of the question. Did I think God was going to give me a different answer? No, this second time I asked in the presence of the men, and they could see the Urim and Thummim in Evyatar’s hand. When the answer came, they could see the light; they knew it was the God’s truth that we would prevail."

"I still don’t understand," Ben Gurion interjected at this point. "Why use a prophecy stone at all, when you had real prophets?"

"Well really, there was just a short period of time when there was an overlap. Samuel and Nathan were the first of the classical prophets, and by the time of Nathan, the Urim and Thummim wasn’t being used anymore.

"But the real point," Ben Ishai continued, "was that a priest with the Urim and Thummim still wasn’t a prophet. They did different things. They had different agendas."

"This part I understand," Ben Gurion said. "One of our own latter day prophets, Ahad Ha’am, said in his essay "Priest and Prophet" that the fundamental difference between priests and prophets was that prophets were monomaniacal, they were fixated on one ideal. They worked outside the establishment, and accepted no compromise. They wanted the rule of justice in the land. Priests, on the other hand, were politicians. They worked within the system, and strived for the achievable, even if it was less than perfect."

"That’s right," Ben Ishai agreed. "The Urim and Thummim didn’t change the nature of the priest. It allowed the priest to convey a very specific message from God: ‘Attack now.’ ‘Wait till sunrise.’ But it didn’t turn the priests into the conscience of the people and their leaders, which is what the prophets were.

"Now tell me, David, do you really want to spend our time together discussing obscure Biblical terminology? Frankly, I’m more interested in the nature of this Jewish State you’re establishing."

They continued talking in a garden that managed to span three thousand years in a single night. Military strategy, politics, coalition governments and an occasional foray into Biblical history and geography.

Did anything change as a result of that meeting? Did Ben Gurion do anything differently? Is the Israel that was established the Jewish State that God wanted? History is silent. Historians and biographers don’t write about this encounter. And as to whether our Israel is the Jewish State that God wanted—alas, we have no more Urim and Thummim with which to inquire.

Shabbat Shalom.