How We Replace Our Magic 8-Ball - Words of Torah for Asarah B'Tevet

How We Replace Our Magic 8-Ball - Words of Torah for Asarah B'Tevet
Rabbi David Baum

Did you have a Magic 8 ball growing up?  It’s been with us since the 1950’s - that magic ball could answer any question that had a yes or no answer - except when it gave us the response:  better not tell you now, or reply hazy, try again later.   The inventor of the magic 8 ball was on to something - he tapped into something eternal. 


Who in here has a difficult question that they cannot answer?  What if I could give you something that would answer all of life’s most difficult questions?  The truth is, as Jews, we had something like this.  It was our ancestor’s version of the magic eight ball, but it all actually worked!  Our magic 8 ball was the breast plate that the High Priest would wear - the Urim and Tumim.  Now what happens when they are lost?  How do you find answers to the unanswerable? 

We just celebrated Hanukkah, a day of the re-dedication of our Temple, and just a week later, we observe another holiday - this one about the beginning of the destruction of the Temple - Asarah B’Tevet. 

Asarah B’tevet memorializes the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadneezer’s Babylonian army – the destruction of Jerusalem now became almost inevitable. Though the Temple in Jerusalem was reconstructed after six decades, though Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem sometime later, and though Israel once again became an independent power under the Hasmoneans, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, some four hundred years later, in Jewish eyes there was never a return to what was seen as the special time when the First Temple was in its glory.  Arguably, the greatest symbol of the loss of this glory could be seen through the permanent loss of the Urim and Tumim, the priestly breastplate which represented the tribes of Israel and through which the Divine communicated to the High Priest.  The Urim and Tumim, our magic 8 ball.  Whenever a question came to the leadership of Israel that was too difficult to answer, they would turn to the Urim and Tumim, a direct link to God, for the answer. 

The loss of the Urim and Tumim represented a loss of direct connection to the divine.  The second Temple was eventually rebuilt, but it was the first Temple that truly held the hearts of the people.  Following the destruction of the First Temple, our people evolved to see the connection of God through holy debate, and eventually after hundreds of years of development, this concept of holy debate moved into the Beit Midrash, the house of learning.  However, there were times when holy debate ventured into unholy territory.  The rabbis of the Talmud describe how dangerous the life of the Beit Midrash could be – susceptible to human error, inviting jealousy and self-satisfaction, subject to the display of ego rather than the search for truth; the rabbis observed and worried about how those engaged in the life of the mind can lose sight of the people who they debate with and how a Jew can become a destroyer rather than a builder. 

Interestingly, on the tenth of Tevet, as on other fast days, we are commanded not so much to recite prayers of remembrance, but rather to engage in confession of our sins.  So we fast not so much to commemorate the past, but to remind ourselves how far we are from getting back to a place where the Divine light shines through with clarity.  

We have to face our own failures of how we have neglected to rebuild the Jerusalem of heaven here on earth because of how much our egos have gotten in the way, how our self-righteousness has led to the mistreatment of others, and how little we have achieved in self-understanding.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Ed Feld, told us a story about how he stayed at a monastery that over the decades had lost many members and was finally down to ten monks.  When he asked one of the Monks what he thought he was accomplishing by living the monastic life, he responded, “We believe that if the ten of us could learn to live together without jealousy, without anger, with love, then we would have something important to teach the world.”

So what is the Beit Midrash of our day where we tackle important and holy issues?  Of course, the Beit Midrash exists in our synagogues and schools, but Jewish learning and debate is also occurring virtually, especially through social media platforms.  As we have all seen and experienced, holy debate online often falls into unholy territory. 

For the days eight days of Hanukkah, I imposed a social media bubble on myself. I would quickly go on Facebook to post pictures of our family enjoying the literal and proverbial lights of Hanukkah, but I abstained from reading and re-posting articles on worldly and pressing issues. I'm back in South Florida, and I am engaging in the recent news stories.  Holding myself back during those eight days from posting about every news incident was a freeing experience.  These days of Hanukkah have led me to rethink my online presence, and this holiday, which occurs seven days later, will help me look at how I use my speech in public.  Perhaps this year of all years, Asarah B’Tevet can be a reminder of the power of our words and the potential of our actions. 

So today, I want to propose two ways in which we can help make up for the loss of our magic 8 ball, the loss of easy answers.  In order to get holy answers, we have to have holy conversation, and our tradition has tools to help us - we must become the magic 8 balls, the Urim and Tumim. 

So I’m going to start learning the laws of Shmirat HaLashon by the Chofetz Chaim, which is available for free and translated into English, online through a wonderful website called Sefaria.  I’m looking for chevrutot, learning partners, so if you are interesting, please let me know.  We will study in person, but more likely, online. 

And second, I’m going to take action in this world to help those in the Shaarei Kodesh community who feel under siege, just like the people of Jerusalem so many years ago.  Next week, we are having our first meeting of the Sunshine Team - We are starting a new group at Shaarei Kodesh – the Sunshine Team.  You don't need to be a Torah scholar, you don't need to be shomer shabbat either – all it takes is you lifting someone up this year – to bring light to the darkness.  Together, next Tuesday, we will begin the process of Jewish learning about the special mitzvoth of visiting the sick and shut ins, and training through the process, and we will organize to put our learning into action. 

Often times, we feel like we are ants in a giant world - powerless to the events of the world, under siege, but our rabbis taught us to think differently.  I’d like to end with a teaching from Rabbi Israel Salanter- The founder of the Modern Musar or Jewish Ethical Mindfulness Movement famously taught the following: When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn't change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn't change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I've come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

We may not be able to change the whole world, but at least we can begin with ourselves.  And perhaps this is the greatest takeaway from the 10th of  Tevet. 


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