Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
This week’s double Torah portion, Vayak’heil and P’kudei, is very familiar because much in it repeats what we read several weeks ago. In the earlier portions, God commands Moses to erect a Mishkan, a portable sanctuary, with all the ritual objects furnishing it?the Ark, the menorah, the sinks for the priests to wash before they begin their daily tasks?and then gives detailed instructions about the priestly vestments.
In this week’s portion, the Torah tells us that the people did exactly as God commanded Moses. But instead of reporting: “And Moses did as God commanded,” the text provides another very detailed description of each of the objects and clothes, repeating with great specificity everything we’ve already heard. Dr. Carol Meyers labels the earlier instructions “prescriptive Tabernacle texts” because they prescribe what is to be done, while our portions, which describe the implementation of the instructions, are called “descriptive Tabernacle texts” (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 521). What separates the two accounts is the sin of the Golden Calf.
Why does there need to be such detail? Maybe it is to reassure us that even after such an egregious sin as the idol worship of the Golden Calf, not only has God forgiven us, but also, we’ve finally gotten it right. We shouldn’t worship a golden idol, but we can use gold and other valuable resources to symbolize God’s presence among us through the Mishkan. And apparently we did, as we read: “. . . all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came . . . and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the task entailed in the work that YHVH has commanded to be done.’ Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary’ ” (Exodus 36:4–6).
But perhaps we are simply meant to learn that attention to detail is important. Anyone who has ever remodeled a home or redecorated a room knows how many details are involved: color, texture, shape, size, material, and so on.
There is one detail that I have always found fascinating. “He made the laver [sink] of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors [mar’ot] of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (38:8). B’mar’ot hatzov’ot literally means “the mirrors of legions,” but as The Women’s Torah Commentary explains, because hatzov’ot is grammatically feminine, the text must be talking about women (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 536).
Rashi, the famous eleventh century commentator, notices that only here in the whole story of the making of the Mishkan do we have an account of a specific gift and what it was used for. He imagines a dialogue between Moses and God:
“Mirrors?” Moses demands of God, “The women are bringing mirrors? How dare they bring these trinkets of vanity into a holy place? I forbid it! Mirrors just lead to lustful thoughts!”
But God intervenes: “Accept them, for these are more precious to me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from backbreaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink. Then the women would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands’ desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5). This is [what is meant by] that which is said, “with the mirrors of those who set up legions, that is, the mirrors of those who had lots of children” (see Rashi on Exodus 38:8).
Imagine what it must have been like for the Israelite men forced to do backbreaking, demeaning work. Their spirits were destroyed; they had lost all hope for the future. It was the women who kept the men’s will to live alive. Even in those horrible circumstances, the women would beautify themselves with the help of these mirrors, using makeup from with whatever dyes and rouges they could find, making themselves attractive to their partner. When the men came home, exhausted and dehumanized, their wives would arouse them by flirting, by playing erotic games, by looking with their husbands into the mirrors, by teasing “which one of us is more attractive?”
These women didn’t give up hope for a different future. They were responsible for our spiritual survival. It was their initiative, courage, and faith that led to the next generation. Perhaps because of that the Talmud tells us: “It was because of the righteousness of the women that we were redeemed from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b).
That detail about the mirrors reminds us of the special role that women played in the liberation of our people, and that detail links this story to Passover.
That link is important because this is a special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat when we announce the upcoming month of Nisan, which begins on Tuesday. Nisan is the month in which we celebrate Passover.
The Book of Exodus concludes with P’kudei. The portable Tabernacle is ready. A cloud rests on it by day; by night a pillar of fire, “in the view of all the house of Israel through their journeys” (Exodus 40:38).The journey continues.
And we take with us on that journey the attention to detail that reminds us about hopefulness even in dark times. We carry God with us as we look forward to the future.
Chazak chazak v’nit’chazeik.
From strength to strength, may we strengthen each other.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.
Rabbi Geller reminds us that Torah is best understood when we slow down and pay attention to the small details. Amidst the detailed descriptions found in this double portion, it is easy to overlook the specific gift of the mirrors or any other small linguistic change found in Vayak’heil and P’kudei .
The small detail that catches my eye is the final word of Exodus. “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys — b’chol mas’ei’hem ” (Exodus 40:38). Notice that the text uses the plural, journeys. Given that the entire wilderness trek took our ancestors from Egypt to the Promised Land, wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “throughout their journey?” If I fly to Israel through London, I consider it a single journey, not two separate ones. What is going on here?
Rashi looks at this and asks the same question. He says, “The place where they camped was also known as a journey — a masa.” What? Since when is a rest stop a journey? Rashi comes to this because two verses earlier, it says that Israel journeyed when the cloud lifted and here, when the cloud of God’s glory remained in place, it was also called a journey. In other words, things don’t just happen when you are moving, they also happen when you are at rest. The place of rest is as much its own journey as a place of movement. There is something to be learned, gleaned, and discovered in every experience. Woven together these form one larger journey of life. Our task is to notice that things happen when we are at rest, just as they happen when we are in motion.
But I like to also think that the text speaks to us as an ever-living document. Bringing the grand sweep of Jewish history and memory to mind, these last words of Exodus still ring true and the plural form of this word helps to illuminate its meaning: the God who brought us out of Egypt and through the wilderness is still very much with us, throughout all of our journeys, be they individual, communal, or generational. Maybe that’s why we were to donate mirrors, to reflect on where we can find God, wherever we might go.
Chazak chazak v’nit’chazeik — May we be strengthened through this journey of Torah.
Rabbi Daniel Gropper is the spiritual leader of Community Synagogue in Rye, New York.
Vayak’heil/P’kudei , Exodus 35:1–40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 668–687; Revised Edition, pp. 611–636
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 521 – 568
Haftarah, Ezekiel 45:16-25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary,pp. 1,653–1,654 ; Revised Edition, pp. 1,457–1,458