Got a hot one for you this week, folks! Send the kids out of the room, because this Torah is for adults only…Got a hot one for you this week, folks! Send the kids out of the room, because this Torah is for adults only…
Our story begins with mirrors.
We’re back to the building of the Tabernacle. Back to the instruction manual. Back to the details, details, details. One of the things we’ve been taking account of, for a few weeks now, is the list of materials that have been donated to this construction project. As the building plan moves forward, mostly we’ve just been reviewing things we’ve already seen. But this week, we have a new donation mentioned.
He made the copper basin and its copper stand, out of the mirrors of the women who served at entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
וַיַּעַשׂ, אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת, וְאֵת, כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת—בְּמַרְאֹת, הַצֹּבְאֹת, אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Mirrors? Hmm, that’s interesting. We haven’t seen those before. And why does the text go out of its way to mention the women who donated them?
Well, the first answer, from our friend the Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167), is very prim and proper:
It is the standard practice of women to beautify themselves every morning by looking at their faces and fixing their hair up in mirrors made of copper or glass… But we see that these Israelite women were dedicated servants of God, who had turned away from all the temptations of the world, and given their mirrors away as a donation, for they no longer had any need for beauty. All they did was to come to the the Tent of Meeting every day to pray and to learn the commandments.
כי משפט כל הנשים להתיפות לראות פניהם בכל בקר במראות נחשת או זכוכית לתקן הפאדות שעל ראשיהם… והנה היו בישראל נשים עובדות השם שסרו מתאות זה העולם ונתנו מראותיהן נדבה כי אין להם צורך עוד להתיפות. רק באות יום יום אל פתח אוהל מועד להתפלל ולשמוע דברי המצות.
Wow! These women were so religious! And the Ibn Ezra, with his very complimentary description of their piety, seems to approve.
So his answer is that the Torah mentions the mirrors in order to show how unimportant they were to these women. “Take them!” they said, “We have no use for such vanities!! All we care about is GOD!”
It’s all very impressive.
But there are a couple of problems with this reading. The first is theological. One cannot help but wonder if this approach isn’t a little too holy. Is this really a religion which has no use for physicality?! Is it such a sin to try to look pretty? Don’t we all freshen up in the morning in front of the mirror? Jewish Law requires us to take care of our bodies; surely we can also attend to how they look.
The other problem is a narrative one. What kind of sacred donations are these if their owners didn’t want them anyway? Do we really want to say that these women were just throwing away their junk? And furthermore, if these mirrors are really such trashy symbols of vanity, why are we making holy objects out of them?
This very question comes up in the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105, France), but he takes a very different approach to the mirrors. In the story he tells, it is Moses who takes the stand against vanity. But listen to what happens:
The women of Israel had these mirrors that they would look in when they were doing their makeup, and even these they did not hold back from bringing to the Tabernacle. But Moses rejected them, because they were made for evil temptation.
But the Holy Blessed One said to him: Take them! For these are dearer to me than anything else! Because through them, these women were able to sustain the people in Egypt.
When their husbands would be exhausted after the backbreaking slave-labor in the fields, the women would go out to bring them food and drink, and feed them. And then they would take their mirrors and each one would view herself next to her husband in the mirror, and would entice him with words, saying, ‘Look, I am lovelier than you!’ So they would arouse their husbands, and they would have sex with them, and then conceive and give birth right there [in the fields] – as it is written in the Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree I aroused you.”
בנות ישראל היו בידן מראות, שרואות בהן כשהן מתקשטות, ואף אותן לא עכבו מלהביא לנדבת המשכן, והיה מואס משה בהן, מפני שעשויים ליצר הרע, אמר לו הקב“ה קבל, כי אלו חביבין עלי מן הכל, שעל ידיהם העמידו הנשים צבאות רבות במצרים. כשהיו בעליהם יגעים בעבודת פרך, היו הולכות ומוליכות להם מאכל ומשתה ומאכילות אותם ונוטלות המראות, וכל אחת רואה עצמה עם בעלה במראה ומשדלתו בדברים, לומר אני נאה ממך, ומתוך כך מביאות לבעליהן לידי תאוה ונזקקות להם, ומתעברות ויולדות שם, שנאמר (שיר השירים ח ה) תחת התפוח עוררתיך, וזהו שנאמר במראות הצובאות.
Rashi is sharing one of most beautiful rabbinic narratives, taken from a passage in the Midrash Tanchuma (Pikudei 9) . Just look at the richness of the imagery: these women tenderly reviving their withered husbands, and then slyly pulling out their mirrors, pressing their cheeks up against their beloved’s, to capture their two faces in the mirror together – the original ‘selfie’ – and then gently teasing them: “Look at how pretty I am! Oh, I’m so much prettier than you – aren’t I, darling? So lovely…” Until…well…you know.
But the art of storytelling aside, think of how different this approach is from the one we saw above. In this version, it is Moses – not the women – who plays the religious extremist. He has no use for beauty! Superficiality! Temptation! “Disgusting!” he says, “Take your filthy trinkets somewhere else! Not in my Tabernacle you don’t!” And perhaps this is consistent with the Moses we know, a serious man who led a life of pure divine service (and was said to stay away from his wife for months at a time).
But then, God – none other than God Almighty! – jumps in to say: Moses, you’ve got it all backwards! These aren’t filthy trinkets! These are the most precious vessels of all! Without them, you wouldn’t even be here – you’d never have made it out alive.
God wants our mirrors, wants our beauty – even wants our lust. They are dear to God. They are part of the plan.
So there you have it. One little detail. Two commentators. Two radically different approaches, that suggest two fundamentally different religious orientations. A classic parshanut debate.
One final interpretation, however, will take our debate and turn it on its head.
The Spanish medieval commentator, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343) – known as the Baal HaTurim – was always quick to pick up on matching words in the Torah. And he points out that the word used here for ‘mirrors’; – marot (מראות) – is only used in one other place in the Torah – back in the Book of Genesis. In that context, however, the word means, not mirrors, but, ‘visions’:
God called to Israel, in visions at night, “Jacob! Jacob!” and he answered, “Here I am.” (Genesis 46:2)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.
Hebrew uses the same word for ‘Mirror’ and ‘Vision’ – which makes sense, since we see visions in mirrors. So the mention of mirrors in Exodus reminds us of the visions of God in Genesis. Here’s how the Baal HaTurim understands that link:
Because these women turned from the temptations of the world and gave their mirrors as a donation, the spirit of God rested upon them.
שאלו הנשים סרו מתאות העולם, ונתנו מראותיהן לנדבת המשכן ונחה עליהם רוח אלוקים.
Okay, so the Baal HaTurim has made this incredible connection, and it looks like he’s using it to argue for the first approach we looked at, the Ibn Ezra’s – that the merit of these women was in their pious rejection of physicality.
But then he goes on, amazingly catching yet another language match, this one from later on in the Hebrew Bible:
“the women who served” – this language is also used in the book of Samuel to indicate how his sons slept with “the women who served at the meeting tent.” Just so, these women in Exodus used their mirrors to sleep with their husbands, as it says in the midrash – they beautified themselves with mirrors and enticed their husbands to have sex with them.
במראות הצובאות – אשר ישכבון את הנשים הצבואות. (ש׳׳א כ כב) גבי בני עלי. כמו התם ׳׳ישכבון הנשים הצבואות׳׳ גם בכאן ע׳׳י מראות היו שוכבין הנשים, כאיתא במדרש שהיו מתקשטות במראות ומשדלות לבעליהן ונזקקין להם.
Do you see what he’s done? The Baal HaTurim is using both approaches, the Ibn Ezra’s and Rashi’s, the ascetic and the sensual. Now historically, this makes sense. The Baal HaTurim lived two centuries after Rashi and the Ibn Ezra and probably saw what each of them wrote.
But there’s more to it than just dutifully collecting all the previous opinions. Because by putting them together in the same flow of commentary, the Baal HaTurim is synthesizing them. He’s telling us that it’s not one or the other, but that these two religious values are compatible.
Sometimes we will turn away from physical pleasure, and completely immerse ourselves in the service of God, seeking visions and enlightenment. And this is good.
And at other times, we will be in touch with our bodies and indulge in the pleasures of the world. And this will also be very good. More than just good – this, too, will be divine service.
Of course God wants those mirrors in the Tabernacle. Of course they are holy vessels. Because our bodies are also holy vessels. They were made, after all, in the “image of God.” So when we look in the mirror, we see an image of God. And sometimes, if we hold the mirror just right, we see two.