Parshas Vayakhel - The Most Precious Mirrors
This shiur is dedicated in the zechus of Zahava Chava bat Miriam Pessel finding a shidduch and Rachel Blima bat Chaya Raizel having continued good health.
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"And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting." (Shemos 38:8)
As opposed to the creation of the world which only take 38 pesukim, the building of the Mishkan takes up entire parshiyos. Among the many details we are taught about the building of the Sanctuary is the building of the Kiyor, the washstand. It was from this washstand that the Kohanim would draw water with which to wash their hands and feet before performing their daily service. Interestingly, of all the utensils that were made for the Mishkan, the Kiyor was the last utensil made but it was the first utensil to be used each day. Among its other uses the Kiyor was also the place from which they would draw water for the Sotah ritual.
The Torah notes that the washstand was fashioned “out of the mirrors of the dedicated women who congregated at the entrance of the Communion Tent.” The women had made many donations including their precious jewelry. What was the significance of these mirrors?
The Ibn Ezra explains, "The way of women is to beautify themselves in front of copper or glass mirrors every morning, to fix their hair and jewelry, as mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (3:20), and as is the custom of the Ishmalites until today. But amongst Israel there were G-d fearing women who distanced themselves from the temptations of this world and gave away their mirrors as a donation because they no longer had the need to beautify themselves…"
Rashi takes the exact opposite approach and explains, "Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “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 back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [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” (Shir Hashirim 8:5). This is [the meaning of] what is בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹבְאֹת [lit., the mirrors of those who set up legions]. From these [the mirrors], the washstand was made, because its purpose was to make peace between a man and his wife. [How so?] By giving a drink from the water that was in it [the washstand] to [a woman] whose husband had warned her [not to stay in private with a certain man] and she secluded herself [with him anyway. The water would test her and either destroy her or prove her innocence..."
This is indeed a fascinating Medrash. Why was Moshe so quick to reject the donations of these mirrors? Are all mirrors made for the yetzer hora? In fact, when we look at the actual Medrash, Moshes response is much harsher. The Medrash says that when Moses saw the mirrors he was angry at the women. He told Klal Yisrael: “Take sticks and break the legs of these women! What do we need these mirrors for?” Hashems response is incredible. Of all of the donations, the vast treasury of materials that Klal Yisrael donated, it is the mirrors that are most precious to Hashem. They held a special sentimental value for him as these mirrors were the instrument that brought about the continuation of Klal Yisrael in their most bitter exile. When the men returned home from a back breaking day of labor they simply had no energy or desire to focus on the continuation of Klal Yisrael. We can picture the conversation as the enslaved Jewish man returns home and says to his wife, "Why would we even want to bring children into this world of pain and destruction? Who even has the energy to think about such things?" The women would then take these mirrors, sit next to their husbands and as they looked into the mirror together the wife would say "I am more beautiful then you." Somehow this was a winning argument and thus Klal Yisrael survived in golus Mitzrayim. Water from a Kiyor made of these precious mirrors would be used as a vehicle to purify the Kohanim and make peace between husband and wife when their shalom bayis was on its very last legs.
Several questions jump out at us. Did Moshe Rabbeinu not understand the story behind these mirrors? Why was he so quick to reject them?
It is understandable that these mirrors held sentimental value to Hashem but there were donations that were far more valuable. Why are these mirrors the most precious of all the donations?
I cannot imagine the pain of Mitzrayim. None of us can. When we look at how Chazal describe the cruelty of the Egyptians, the Holocaust pales in comparison (and even those atrocities are beyond comprehension). Of course the men were exhausted and disinterested in bringing children into such a cruel world. So what is the nature of this strange and ultimately winning argument of these nashim tzidkaniyos? "I am more beautiful then you." What does that even mean?!? Why does that move the men to change their minds?
Finally, while Rashi does address the connection between the isha Sotah and the Kiyor, why is this the utensil that is used to purify the Kohanim every day? Is their an inner connection between the story of the mirrors and the daily ritual of the Kohanim?
What is the inner meaning of the machlokes between the Ibn Ezra and Rashi?
The Ugliness of I Am
The philosopher, confident in his own existence, ponders the existence of God. The Rabbi, confident in God's existence, ponders the existence of man.
The world proclaims, "I am." When we look at the world we don't see a projection of God. In that way, our very existence, is narcissistic. Only those that are confident in their existence can question the existence of God. In Judaism we are confident of God's existence. It is our existence that needs to be questioned. What is our purpose? Why would God create us?
A wise person once told me that EGO is an acronym for Edging God Out. The object that is most identified with our ego is the mirror. To stand in front of a mirror, admiring our beauty, is to identify with our external self. It is the ultimate proclamation of "I am." Rather than seeing the world through the lens of humility which emanates from our Godly soul, we are seeing life through the prism of our arrogance which is derived from our animal soul. But beauty is fleeting. The body fades and withers, losing the charm it once held. In it's place all that's left is the grace of the soul. Couples who grow old together still find each other attractive. Their secret is that the physical beauty was never the focus. At best it was a revelation of a deep inner connection that existed on the soul dimension. Their need for psychical beauty is seen as something from a childish past.
This, says the Ibn Ezra, is the deeper meaning of the mirrors of the Kiyor. The righteous women of Klal Yisrael, those that had no need for psychical beauty because they saw the world through the prism of their Godly soul, were willing to give up their mirrors for a higher purpose. It is fitting that the Kiyor be used for the purification of the Kohanim. What greater utensil could their be to wash away the psychical impurities of the body then the mirrors of those women who saw the body for what it s truly is? Indeed it is a lesson to the women who must participate in the Sotah ritual. Intimacy, the establishment of oneness, is not built from two bodies but from two souls seeking to become one. Intimacy means exclusivity. If you are married it means you are working to become one with your spouse. If you have strayed and have been alone with another man against the express wishes of your husband it is only the water that comes from these soul powered mirrors which can restore peace and harmony to the marriage.
I Am Beautiful
Rashi agrees with the Ibn Ezra. Indeed this is how he represents the position of Moshe Rabbeinu. Mirrors are made for lust. They have no place in the Mishkan. They are not utensils that can be used to create purity. And God would have agreed with Moshe Rabbeinu were it not for the unique story of these mirrors. These mirrors were not used to proclaim the beauty of our own existence. They were used only to bring more Jewish children into the world. To ensure Jewish continuity in the most trying of times.
But we are left with one very powerful question. If these mirrors were being used for the exclusive purpose of Godliness why would the women gaze into these mirrors with their husbands and proclaim, "I am more beautiful then you." This seems to be the height of hubris! This statement is the exactly the opposite of the humility one would expect when seeing the Godliness in our lives!
Sometimes our English translation of the Torah is technically correct but misses the soul of the message. This is one of those times. Rashi writes that the women would say אני נאה ממך. The literal translation is " I am more beautiful then you." Technically speaking this would be correct. However, it misses the inner message of what is being communicated. A more meaningful translation would be, "I am beautiful from you." Beauty is not absolute. As Shakespeare said, it is in the eye of the beholder. We are not objectively beautiful. Our beauty is a reflection. This is why we are all attracted to different people. We do not share the same root soul with everyone. Only specific people are connected to us on an essential level. It is the beauty of the soul that is brought out when we meet our souls counterpoint in another.
The righteous women of Klal Yisrael saw the brokenness of their husbands. They saw the physical pain and the psychological torment. They understood why their husbands were disinterested in the continuation of the Jewish people. But they courageously took out their mirrors, sat next to their husbands and lovingly looked at themselves and proclaimed, I am beautiful because you saw in me a shared essence and brought out my beauty. Though our physical existence is tortured, our souls remain free. They cannot take away the beauty you gave me when we were married. This was the argument that swayed the husbands. It was not an act of lust but an act of love. Our physical existence may have its ups and downs but the soul is eternal and stable. This is the difference between pain and suffering. Everyone experiences pain at some point in their lives but those that choose to lead a soul powered life don't suffer. The Jewish men were choosing to suffer. The Jewish women were choosing to engage their pain and to courageously persevere. Their message had its desired impact and Klal Yisrael survived.
So when it came time for materials for the Kiyor the women brought the most meaningful objects they had. The mirrors that they used to ensure the continuation of Klal Yisrael. And when Moshe rejected their donation it was Hashem himself who argued for their inclusion. What better material could there be for the Kiyor then the mirrors that ensured our future. Appropriate for purification of the Kohanim and appropriate for the woman who lost her way and strayed from the husband who brought out her beauty. Indeed, as Hashem said, these are the most precious materials of all.