Commentary on Parashat Vayakhel, Exodus 35:1 - 38:20
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
One of the vessels described in Parshat Vayakhel is the ‘Kiyor,’ the sink, or basin, to be used by the priests to wash their hands and feet in the course of their work in the Tabernacle. The Bible presents us with a somewhat cryptic description of its construction: “And he made the sink of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, with the mirrors of the women who congregate, who congregated at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.”
Who are these women? Where and why are they congregating? Why were their mirrors used to construct the basin?
The women of Israel were in possession of mirrors, which they used when they beautified themselves, and even these they did not withhold from donating to the Tabernacle. And Moses rejected them, for they are made to serve the evil inclination.
God said to him: “Accept them, for these are dearer to me than all the rest, for it is with them that the women raised many congregations [this is the meaning of ‘the women who congregate’ in the verse] in Egypt.
“When their husbands were tired from their labors, the women would go and bring them food and drink and feed them, and bring the mirrors with them, and each one would look at herself and her husband in the mirror and tempt him, and say ‘I am prettier than you’, and thereby arouse their husbands’ desire for them, and they would be together, and the women conceived, and gave birth …”
And the sink was made of them, for its function is to make peace between husband and wife, by giving water from it to the woman suspected by her jealous husband of having been unfaithful [during a ritual known as the ‘Sotah‘ ceremony].
Arguing With God
Moses’ argument with God is interesting. Moses objects to using the mirrors in the Tabernacle because he sees them as serving the evil inclination; women use them in order to put on their make up, to make themselves beautiful. God does not contradict Moses; that is, basically, what the mirrors were for. However, he points out that the evil inclination is also the mechanism that creates, ultimately, human beings, and specifically, against all odds, a Jewish people.
The husbands, enslaved in Egypt, were crushed, beaten, and therefore unable and unwilling to reach out to another human being, and certainly unable to imagine a future for people as yet unborn. The wives, using the engine of the evil inclination, manage to do both–reach out to and interact with their husbands, and, thereby, create a future for the seemingly defeated Jewish people.
To better understand the difference of opinion between Moses and God, I think we should look at the specifics of what Moses saw in these mirrors, and what God saw in them.
Moses objected to them as being unfit for inclusion in the Tabernacle. What he saw, according to Rashi, was mirrors in which women looked at themselves when applying their makeup, an essentially narcissistic behavior.
God, on the other hand, was focusing on a different mirror, a mirror in which there were two people, a wife and a husband, playfully celebrating each other’s beauty. The “I am more beautiful than you” line which the wives used in this story, takes the inherent narcissism and self-absorption of a woman at her vanity table applying makeup, and cleverly turns it into a way to communicate, to reach out to another person. God is of the opinion that the mirrors, the token of that interaction, are precisely, more than anything else [“these are dearer to me than all the rest”], what belongs in the Temple.
Just as the food and drink that the women brought to their husbands represent a communication, an offering, and, therefore, a sanctification of sorts of the physical–something which is uniquely appropriate to the Temple–so, too, the way the mirrors are used in the story in Egypt represent a sanctification of the sexual. They represent an intimacy that brings strength, joy, and comfort to one’s partner. An intimacy in which one reaches out to another individual, and beyond, to unborn generations.
Understanding Our Physical Selves
The question, “what do you see when you look in the mirror?” is a question about how we understand our physical selves. Moses’ answer is not wrong; when all I see when I look in the mirror is a physicality (and therefore a sexuality) that is essentially about oneself and one’s own pleasure–as symbolized by a person looking at herself and only herself in the mirror–that is ‘the evil inclination’, and should be rejected.
God, on the other hand, sees the women who, when they looked in the mirror, saw not only themselves but, rather, saw themselves in relationship to another. God, therefore, wants the Temple to celebrate that; a physicality and a sexuality that is about two people, that is, in fact, about many people–‘congregations,’ the progeny of an intimate relationship between two individuals. When the women congregate at the entrance of the Meeting Tent and offer these same mirrors, they are again attempting to use the physical in order to achieve spiritual goals.
The fact that, in the Temple ritual, the sink acts as a mediator between a couple that has lapsed into a mode of jealousy and suspicion (when the waters of the sink are used as part of the ‘sotah’ ritual which can reunite the two), makes the choice of the mirrors for its construction particularly appropriate. It is by seeing themselves together in these mirrors, as a couple, as their foremothers and forefathers did in Egypt, and not as separate individuals with separate, narcissistic desires and needs, that the troubled couple may find peace, and be reunited.