"Mattie stood in the doorway, and an involuntary shudder went through her when she saw Ciel's eyes. Dear God, she thought, she's dying, and right in front of our faces.
'Merciful Father, no!' she bellowed. There was no prayer, no bended knee or sackcloth supplication in those words, but a blasphemous fireball that shot forth and went smashing against the gates of heaven, raging and kicking, demanding to be heard."
- Gloria Naylor, "The Women of Brewster Place"
Gloria Naylor's award-winning 1982 novel, "The Women of Brewster Place," tells the story of a community through the interconnected lives of its residents. In the scene excerpted above, Mattie, an elder in the neighborhood, gently and steadily rocks Ciel back to life after the loss of her child. In healing and caring for Ciel, Mattie refuses to let death have the last word. Her act is one of resistance and resilience, one which affirms life and generates hope in the face of overwhelming grief.
Parshat Vayak'heil, distant in time and circumstances from the women of Brewster Place, points us toward another such act of life-affirming resistance. This week's parashah offers continued insight into the construction of the Mishkan, God's dwelling place in the wilderness. We watch as highly skilled artisans use their gifts to construct and adorn a sacred space whose brilliant aesthetic reflects the individual lives woven together to form the ever-growing tapestry of an inchoate nation. Objects once mundane are repurposed for sacred service by Israelite artisans. Toward the end of the parashah, we get a surprising glimpse into the life of one of these objects: the bronze wash basin that the priests will use to cleanse themselves before entering the Mishkan. We read that the artisan Bezalel made the basin and its accompanying stand from "the mirrors of the women who crowded at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" (Exodus 38:8; Nehama Leibowitz, New Studied in Shemot).
Where did these mirrors come from? What is their significance for the identity of the Israelite nation? What do they reflect back to us from their place in the Mishkan? Building on this fleeting reference in the biblical text, the midrash recounts a powerful tale. Pharaoh originally sought to limit Israelite population growth not only by imposing harsh labor but by enforcing celibacy: "Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives." In response, says the midrash, the Israelite women brought food and wine to their husbands in the field. "And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take their mirrors and look at them with their husbands, and she would say, 'I am more beautiful than you,' and he would say, 'I am more beautiful than you.'" This playful erotic banter aroused mutual desire, and as a result, the Israelites "were fruitful and multiplied."
Like Mattie, the midrash tells us the Israelite women refused to let death and despair have the last word. Living in an empire which devalued and dehumanized them, the women devoted themselves to creating new life. Demoralized and exhausted from their labor in the fields, they looked at their own reflections and those of their husbands and saw beauty and dignity; they saw a future, a life beyond Egypt.
It was these very mirrors that the Israelite women sought to contribute to the building of the Mishkan. At first, the midrash continues, Moses refused to accept the mirrors, dismissing them as tools of vanity. But God stepped in to teach Moses a lesson: "Moses - these you despise! These mirrors raised up all those hosts in Egypt!" (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 9). God's words reflect an audacious pun: the women who crowded [tzov'ot] at the entrance to the Mishkan generated the "hosts" [tz'va'ot] of Israelites who went forth from slavery (Ex.12:41).
"In this midrash," writes Dr. Rachel Adelman, "God is seen to be on the side of women, with their audacious mission to guarantee that 'life find a way,' while Moses is rebuked for rejecting the mirrors. When God defends the women's donation of the mirrors against Moses' violent rejection, their significance as icons of vanity is transformed into emblems of resistance, even transformation" ("Ministering Women and Their Mirrors").
Even apparently insignificant details of the Mishkan's structure offer insight into the evolving identity of the Israelite people. Leon Kass writes:
"This building project belongs to the unfolding account of the formation of the Israelite nation, in its relation to the Lord and His Way for humankind. On display will be not only the Tabernacle but also the various actors in the story, in their evolving place in the national project: Moses, the people, the artists, the priests, the Lord. What is being created is more than a building" (Leon Kass, "Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus").
Parshat Vayak'heil offers us more than a detailed description of a construction project. We witness the building of a national identity-a people called into being by the God of life, a people that honors the contributions of all members of the community, including those who have been pushed to the margins. It is striking that the priests, leaders, and authority figures in ancient Israel are to purify themselves each time they begin their service in the Tent of Meeting with water from a vessel that symbolizes defiance, courageous resistance to illegitimate authority, the persistence of love, and the power of hope.
"In reward for the righteous women of that generation," says the Talmud, "Israel was redeemed from Egypt" [B. Sota 11b]. Redemption, our Sages insist, came about only because of the deeds of "righteous women." As Avivah Zornberg writes, these women "act as God had done at the beginning of time, they create and nurture life: that is, in the simplest sense, the meaning of redemption" ("The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus").
From the experiences of the women of Brewster Place, and from the experiences of the Israelite women as taught by the midrash, we might derive a universal principle: even in the bleakest circumstances, we are obligated to "create and nurture life." The Israelite women employed the tools available to them - their mirrors - as well courage and love, to build a better future for themselves and their children. So also are we called to use the tools available to us to resist oppression, nurture life, and work toward a vibrant and flourishing future. The mirrors, originally instruments of vanity and self-regard, were transformed into sacred vessels that would lift the entire community to the sacred purpose of generating and sustaining life.
As co-authors and inheritors of Jewish tradition, we are accountable to those brave women who took their mirrors out into the fields and saw beauty and dignity in their broken-down bodies, who demanded to be heard, and who refused to let death have the last word.