Community Torah Corner, March 4, 2022

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg
United Synagogue of Hoboken
Hoboken, NJ 
Parashat Pekudei

Wordle in the Torah? 
With all the turmoil in our world, many of us are glad to have Wordle to distract us. Of course Wordle is the incredibly popular word guessing and unscrambling game that a software developer in Brooklyn created as a present for his spouse, and in November 2021 it had been played by a total of 90 people.  Now it is played by millions every day (many of whom are eager to tell you their score). 

Believe it or not, there are some connections between Wordle and this week’s Torah portion of Pekudei, which describes the garments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the other Kohanim.  The Kohen Gadol would wear a Choshen Mishpat, often translated as “the breastplate of decision,” which looked a little like a Wordle grid, with four rows of three precious stones, each stone corresponding to one of the tribes of Israel and engraved with the name of that tribe. 

The Torah portion goes on to tell us about the “Urim ve-Tumim,” which were to be put in the Choshen and to help the leaders of the Jewish people to make decisions. Commentators disagree about what exactly these words “Urim ve-Tumim” refer to.  Ramban (13th c. Spain) suggests that the Urim ve-Tumim was not an additional item worn by the Kohen Gadol, but rather it’s a name for how the Choshen Mishpat functioned as a decision-making device.  Noting that the word “Urim” means “lights,” and that the breastplate was engraved with the names of all the tribes of Israel, nearly every letter in the Hebrew alphabet was engraved somewhere on the breastplate. When the Kohen Gadol would ask an important question, Hebrew letters on the breastplate would light up, and those letters would spell the answer to whatever question was posed. But here’s the problem: those lit letters wouldn’t necessarily be in order.  The Kohen Gadol had to unscramble the letters. (Sounds a little like Wordle?) 

In fact, the 18th century scholar Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon, said that Ramban’s interpretation can help us to understand a famous story at the beginning of the Book of Samuel. The High Priest Eli sees Hannah, who is distraught because she desperately wants to have a child. She is moving her lips but making no sound, and Eli is troubled by this and accuses her of being drunk. 

The Vilna Gaon says:  The High Priest Eli posed this question to the Choshen Mishpat: What’s going on with that woman?  Then letters in the breastplate started to light up: the letters Shin, Kaf, Resh, Hey. 
ש  כ ר ה

Eli unscrambled these letters and realized that they could spell the word שכרה  shikorah, which means “drunk,” so Eli concluded that (by the standards of those times) she should be chastised and thrown out of the Temple.

However, there’s often more than one way to solve the puzzle.  Eli didn’t realize that those letters also can be rearranged to spell the word כשרה -- which could mean k’sherah, “appropriate,” and could mean ke-Sarah, “like Sarah.” The Choshen Mishpat was really trying to communicate that Hannah was appropriately crying out in sorrow, similar to her ancestor the matriarch Sarah.

This is an imaginative story -- but it’s also true to our experience, in Wordle and in our lives.  When we make assumptions too soon, without all the information, we’re more likely to get it wrong.  When people’s lives and dignity are at stake, before making a rash decision, collect all the necessary information and consider all the possibilities!