Light and Truth

Rabbi Ethan Tucker
Tuesday, June 27, 2023

These remarks were delivered by R. Ethan Tucker, President and Rosh Yeshiva of Hadar, at the Capstone Celebration of Hadar's Advanced Kollel on June 26, 2023.

וַיַּפְשֵׁט֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתָם֙ אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֧מָת אַהֲרֹ֛ן שָׁ֖ם בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֖ר מִן־הָהָֽר

In this week's Torah reading, we hear of a profound moment of leadership transition. Aharon, the high priest, passes away. And God orders a rite of succession as the torch of leadership will pass to his son, Elazar. Strikingly, God commands Aharon to transfer his clothing - the vestments that turn this mortal into a vehicle for God’s will on earth - to his son. Chief and most prominent among those vestments was the "Hoshen HaMishpat," the breastplate adorned with 12 radiant stones, jewels upon which the names of the 12 tribes were inscribed.

As we have gathered tonight for our own moment of empowering new leaders, and with the 12 of you, as radiant as any stones, up on this bimah, I am drawn to the role of the hoshen in leadership. What might it teach us? What might it press us to expect from this moment as we look to the future?

We are told elsewhere in the Torah that the hoshen is meant to hold the urim and the tumim, words that literally mean: light and truth. What does it mean for a leader’s Torah to be a vessel of light and truth?

Let’s start with truth:

Truth is being accountable to things beyond your own initial opinions. It is recognizing that while religious instinct is a critical starting point, the true coin of authenticity is minted when we speak with a covenantal vocabulary that is drawn from our sources and offers us wisdom beyond ourselves.

In the world of Torah, the quest for truth starts with a commitment to be accountable to our tradition, to be fluent in it. We approach our texts with humility and reverence, knowing we owe it to them to read them correctly and precisely, looking to them for insights we might never have imagined on our own.  Over these last years of intensive study, these future rabbis have held themselves to a high standard of accountability to our tradition. They join in the effort to ensure that gender-integrated and gender-equal batei midrash can be full participants in the most advanced discussion of Talmud Torah anywhere. I could not be more proud of this group—and you should expect great things from them as learners and teachers in the years ahead.

And then there is light. Torah, to be divine, must radiate. Whether in affirming or challenging ways, it must address human experience.  It cannot simply be a harsh truth, etched in dark stone. Torah is not a law to be laid down, an electric fence to be feared and respected.  It is a compass, a searchlight, a way that we teach because it elevates us and our society.  Here too, you should expect much of this group. They love and believe in Torah in ways that are inspiring and profoundly restorative.

We must bring a Torah of light and truth to this world. One that is uncompromising in its rigor, that challenges our preconceived notions, and one whose teachers are confidently fluent in the full range of Torah literature. And it must also be a Torah that promises illumination, inspiration and purpose that can light the way for others.

But there is another lesson borne by the hoshen

The variety of names of the tribes on the breastplate contained almost all the letters of the alphabet, allowing this oracular piece of clothing to spell out words and offer instructions for action. But the close observer will scan the names of the tribes beginning with Reuven and ending with Binyamin and find that four letters of the alphabet are missing.  Het, Tet, Tzadi and Kuf are nowhere to be found.

The Talmud on Yoma 73b confronts this alphabetical incompleteness and two Sages provide additional phrases that appeared on the breastplate:

אמר רב שמואל בר יצחק: אברהם יצחק ויעקב כתיב שם.
אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: שבטי ישורון כתיב שם.
The names of the three patriarchs appeared there—with Yitzhak's name efficiently providing the Het, Tzadi and Kuf. And the phrase "Shivtei Yeshurun," the tribes of Jeshurun, was there as well, supplying the missing Tet.

With these additions, all the letters are present. But why these phrases of all those that might have plugged this orthographic hole? Make no mistake—these choices are deliberate and they encode strong claims.

The first, referring to our ancestors, teaches us that our engagement with the challenges of the present must be done with the language of the past. The only oracle worth hearing is one that draws on the wisdom of the ancestors, not just the sociological realities of the current moment. Torah is a diachronic discipline, one that invites us to grasp a piece of eternity that serves as a control on our desire to bend reality to our will. If Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’akov could not imagine the Torah we teach as the word of God, then can it really be so?

The second, referring to the tribes of Israel, teaches us that any true attempt at the word of God must be plausibly addressed to all the tribes of Israel. There is no authentic covenantal message that ignores large swaths of the Jewish people. Whether the axis is gender, geography, politics, or anything else that threatens to divide us, the hoshen tells us that we must broaden our sights. We are not spelunking with a headlamp in a private cave. We are meant to be building lighthouses on the highest hilltops, ones that can be seen by all of Shivtei Yeshurun.

Without these letters—those of the earliest generations and those of the maximalist vision of Jewish community—your alphabet will be incomplete, your Torah, no matter how true and luminous you believe it to be, will be incapable of full expression.

To our dear students, we say: never compromise on truth and always shine your light. And let us all hold one another to account, to insist on Jewish leaders who fluently speak in the dialect of eternity as they address the full complement of our eternal people and the broader world.