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The Priesthood and National Responsibility

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Please pray for a refua sheleima for טובה מאטל בת חנה אטל
The King Consults the Urim Ve-Tumim
Our parasha opens with the prohibition on kohanim contracting ritual impurity:
And the Lord said to Moshe: “Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: None [of you] shall be defiled for the dead among his people.” (Vayikra 21:1)
Let us attempt to understand the incompatibility of death and kohanim by looking at the role of the urim ve-tumim on the choshen, the breastplate worn by the Kohen Gadol. The urim ve-tumim are contained in the choshen, and they illuminate (or reflect) the Divine Presence and the Name of God, along with the names of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael. The urim ve-tumim serves two purposes:
  1. Delineating the portions of inheritance in the land. This is important not only due to the relevant questions of property and finance; indeed, this affects all future generations with regard to the land.
  2. Strategic decisions with regard to questions of national security, such as going to war.
The Rambam mentions the same two functions with regard to the king:
All the lands that he [the king] conquers belong to him. He may give them to his servants and to his soldiers as he sees fit and keep for himself as he sees fit, and in all these matters his judgment is binding.
In all matters his actions should be for the sake of Heaven, and his purpose and intention should be to elevate the true faith, to fill the world with justice, to break the power of the wicked, and to wage the wars of God. For the purpose of appointing a king from the outset is to execute justice and to wage wars, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:20), “And our king shall judge us, and go out before us, and wage our wars.” (Rambam, Laws of Kings 4:10)
The king stands before the kohen and enlists the help of the urim ve-tumim in deciding which course of action to follow. What is so unique about the power of the kohanim who use the urim ve-tumim?
Shaul Consults with the Medium
Let us consider the alternative – for instance, foretelling the future with the help of a medium. King Shaul appeals to a medium, who supplies a clear and bone-chilling prediction as to what will happen to him:
Then Shaul said to his servants, “Seek me woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at Ein-Dor”… And Shemuel said to Shaul, “Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?” And Shaul answered, “I am greatly distressed, for the Pelishtim wage war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, neither by prophets nor by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do.” Then Shemuel said, “Why then do you ask of me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the Lord has done for Himself as He spoke by me, for the Lord has rent the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbour, to David, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord, nor would you execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek; therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover, the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Pelishtim, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord shall also deliver the camp of Israel into the hand of the Pelishtim. Then Shaul quickly fell full-length onto the ground and was greatly afraid at the words of Shemuel, nor was there any strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all day and all night. (Shemuel I 28:7-20)
The midrash criticizes Shaul:
That which is written previously (Vayikra 20), “And a man or a woman among them who is a medium or a wizard…” – R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi: This “man” was Shaul, and this “woman” was the medium. R. Levi said in the name of R. Chama bar Chanina: [Concerning] that which is written, “And you shall be only above...” (Devarim 28:13) – it would have been better had Shaul consulted the urim ve-tumim of Above, and not the medium and wizardry of below. (Vayikra Rabba, Emor 26:7)
The assumption of the midrash seems to be that if Shaul had gone to the kohanim, the battle might have had a different conclusion. The midrash even “reminds” Shaul that he killed the kohanim in Nov:
It was you who brought this upon yourself! Was it not you who struck Nov, the city of kohanim?!
The message carried by Shemuel via the channel of the dead is a gloomy and terminal one. It offers no future, no possibility of repair – only a harsh, unsparing, deterministic statement. The advantage of the channel represented by the kohanim and prophecy is that they allow room for human action and assumption of responsibility.
The appeal to the medium is, in fact, an attempt to gain knowledge of an esoteric cosmic truth by communing with the dimension of death. People commune with the dead out of longing or out of a sense that there is clearer knowledge “out there” than we have in our world. Although this power exists also in prophecy, this knowledge is revealed through the dead in a completely different way.
When Shemuel is revealed to Shaul through the efforts of the medium, the prophecy that he conveys becomes deterministic and fixed. There is no possibility of change: “And tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me: the Lord shall also deliver the camp of Israel into the hand of the Pelishtim.”
Shaul’s approach is mentioned by Yishayahu:
And the Lord God of hosts called to weeping and to mourning and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth. And behold: joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating meat and drinking wine: let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die. And it was revealed in my ears by the Lord of hosts: Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you until you die, says the Lord God of hosts. (Yishayahu 22:12-14)
Concerning Shaul himself, who fasted up until the meeting with the medium out of hope for some change, we read:
And the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened and killed it, and took flour, and kneaded it, and baked matzot out of it. And she brought it before Shaul and before his servants, and they ate, and they rose up and went away that night. (Shemuel I 28:24-25)
Once Shaul hears the fate that awaits him, with no possibility of effecting any change, he ends his fast and he eats and drinks. Shaul is aware that he will be hanged on the wall of Beit Shean; all that is left for him to do is to spare the nation the greater humiliation of the manner in which he is to be killed, falling upon his own sword before the Pelishtim arrive.
The Power of Prophecy
Prophecy leaves room for freedom of action. This is demonstrated in the civil war that was fought over the episode of the concubine in Giv’a. The tribes attempt to consult with the urim ve-tumim in order to know in advance the outcome of the battle. The first and second time, the answer is, “Go up!”, but the outcome suggests that this answer is incorrect.
Why are the tribes successful the third time? Because they understand the true function of the urim ve-tumim – imbuing the subject with responsibility to carry out his task. The tribes do not storm the “enemy” again as a rag-tag rabble, but rather organize themselves with a view to victory – and this time, they are indeed victorious.
Communing with the dead is ultimately submission to determinism, while prophecy allows man to assume responsibility. This responsibility grants him the freedom to act and to repair, and this is true independence. A slave cannot assume responsibility; he is at the mercy of the decisions made by others. A free man can make decisions for himself.
This assumption of responsibility even allows for an encounter between kohanim and ritual impurity, as happens in the event of a met mitzva (a person found dead with no one available to bury him). Although the Kohen Gadol may not contract impurity through contact with the dead, in this one instance he is permitted to become impure. In this instance, he must take responsibility for society and act.
The fighters of Yavesh Gil’ad are another example of taking responsibility. In a daring and dangerous military operation, they infiltrate Beit She’an and bring out the bodies of Shaul and his sons, which are hanging in disgrace. This is true responsibility.
Responsibility – The Interface of Halakha and Life
The day before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut is Yom Ha-Zikaron, Remembrance Day, commemorating the fallen soldiers of the IDF. This is a day of judgment, just like Rosh Hashana. We stand before the fallen soldiers of Israel – more than twenty thousand who have been killed for the sanctification of God’s Name – and we must give an accounting.
At Yeshivat Har Etzion we owe a double accounting. We stand upon the ruins of the historical Gush Etzion, whose defenders fell on this most significant day – the 4th of Iyar. In addition, we are part of the broader yeshiva world; we are among those who are engaged in and responsible for Torah, and therefore we are obligated to feel and display genuine responsibility.
The responsibility within the yeshiva world that rests upon those who study here at Yeshivat Har Etzion is at the juncture where Halakha meets the reality of life. This may be illustrated in a number of areas:
  1. Gittin (divorces) – In terms of “dry” Halakha, a get must be given of the husband’s free will. If we were to follow only the plain, literal halakhic standard, we would have to contend with so many mamzerim that instead of screening mamzerim from Am Yisrael, we would have to look hard to find any completely kosher Jews.
  2. Conversion – The non-acceptance of converts as a result of lack of agreement to one single mitzvah creates numerous challenges in view of the fact that there are significant numbers of Israelis whose Judaism is cast into doubt in light of this halakhic standard.
  3. Shabbat – In this area, let us consider one specific example: security for hi-tech projects. Obviously, there is no question of pikuach nefesh here; no one’s life is in danger. But how can we possibly imagine a state in which hi-tech projects, websites, and infrastructure are vulnerable to attack? The State of Israel cannot afford to be lax with regard to cybersecurity, since the indirect results could include the collapse of entire systems and most significant damage.
There were two very wise men, one of whom I agree with completely, while the other I do not agree with at all – Rav Goren and Yishayahu Leibowitz – who both formulated this understanding in the past. The Halakha of exile cannot be maintained in the reality of the state. We are entrusted with the responsibility to formulate Halakha that facilitates existence and maintenance of the Jewish State. May our leaders, gedolei Torah, be granted the insight and sensitivity to understand the halakhic needs of Medinat Yisrael.
Translated by Kaeren Fish