The advent of Chat GPT and the new AI driven Bing search engine underscore the incredible longing for certainty in a complicated world. While both technologies are eerily prescient and strangely comical at the same time, their presence and eventual prominence in our world only amplifies the ancient striving for divine knowledge in the midst of confusion. This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, identifies this desire with some artificial intelligence of biblical proportions.
The backdrop of this week’s portion is the extraordinary commandment to build a sanctuary for YHVH. The exacting detail and the unfettered commitment to build something is inspiring given that the people have never had their own sacred space as a nation. The mishkan, the portable sanctuary detailed in recent chapters, is built by individuals, literally, “from every person whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:2) The collective effort will become the first public entity of the Israelite nation where it is the national duty to serve the divine.
As the instructions for building the sacred space for God’s presence unfold, the detailed explanations of how the people who serve the mishkan are recorded in the chapters of this Torah reading. Along with the elegant and ornate vestments the priests are instructed to wear, we read about the breastplate of decision making, the Hoshen Mishpat, and in particular the Urim and Tummim, two stones with some form of oracular quality. The meaning of the words is uncertain, with some translating them as stones to assign guilt or innocence.
There are few examples of these tools of divination being used in the entire Bible. We read that Eleazar, the high priest who succeeds Aharon, consults the Urim (and not the Tummim) when Moshe selects Joshua to succeed him. (Num. 27:21) We read of their mention at the conclusion of the Torah when Moshe is blessing the people. (Deut. 33:8) We only read of any function of these strange objects in the stories retold in the book of Samuel, when he consults the stones as confirmation for his decision making. (I Samuel 14:41; 28:6) The infrequent mention of these objects in the civic behavior of the Israelite nation in the entire Bible affirms that the search for divine understanding does not rely on amulets or supernatural forces.
From our modern perspective, the presence of the Urim and Tummim in the text is troubling. Today, we invest significant resources and celebrate the achievements of discovery that are the result of research, testing, application, and real change. Chat GPT and AI Bing are the outcome of countless hours of computation and modeling to help us gain answers to the uncertainties we face. Type in a few commands and out comes the right answer, or so we hope. Suddenly, some magic stones don’t seem so far-fetched after all.
We learn that the Torah does not rely upon the Urim and Tummim and neither should we.
It will be many generations later when the prayer life of the Jewish people will proclaim their duty - L’Takein Olam B’Malchut Shaddai “To correct the world under God’s domain” taken from the Aleinu prayer. Here the word “correct” could even imply building a world of certainty. While sometimes we want amulets with supernatural forces, pens or bullets to make the world a better place, this Torah reading and the recognition that building a place for God’s presence to dwell seems far more compelling. Maybe we won’t need hammers and nails to build this kind of sacred space. We will need the desire and will to build something together to discover certainty in a complicated world. There’s something about “every person whose heart so moves them,” that provides the most reliable form of certainty possible - that God’s presence dwells between us.