Mir­ror, mir­ror on the wall

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - NECHAMA GOLD­MAN BARASH The writer teaches con­tem­po­rary Halacha at the Matan Ad­vanced Tal­mud In­sti­tute. She also teaches Tal­mud at Pardes along with cour­ses on Sex­u­al­ity and Sanc­tity in the Jewish tra­di­tion.

One of the first things a priest does be­fore he en­ters the Taber­na­cle is to wash his hands and feet in the basin and laver built for this pur­pose. It is in­cum­bent upon him to stop and pre­pare with this first step be­fore be­gin­ning his work. This week’s To­rah por­tion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, adds an in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant de­tail about the con­struc­tion of those items that have al­ready been de­scribed pre­vi­ously:

“And he made the laver of bronze, and the base thereof of bronze, of the mir­rors of the women who per­formed tasks at the door of the tent of meet­ing.”

Who were th­ese women and what was the pur­pose of the mir­rors they do­nated?

• Bi­ble scholar Nahum Sarna in the JPS edi­tion of Ex­o­dus writes that all women would have had some form of mir­rors and in an­cient times they were mostly the hand­held kind. One par­tic­u­larly strik­ing ex­am­ple in the Bri­tish Mu­seum is of a small bronze con­cave mir­ror dat­ing back to the time of an­cient Is­rael. Its han­dle is the fig­ure of a wo­man! Fur­ther Sarna sug­gests that it is likely th­ese be­longed to women who per­formed me­nial work “and the idea here is that even th­ese women at the bot­tom of the oc­cu­pa­tional and so­cial scale dis­played un­selfish gen­eros­ity and sac­ri­fi­cial de­vo­tion in do­nat­ing their valu­able bronze mir­rors.”

• Along dif­fer­ent lines, the me­dieval­ists Ibn Ezra and Nah­manides see the mir­rors as ves­sels of van­ity. Ibn Ezra writes, “It is cus­tom­ary for ev­ery wo­man to make up her face ev­ery morn­ing and look in a bronze or glass mir­ror in or­der to ad­just her hair style and or­na­ments as men­tioned in Isa­iah.” He con­tin­ues: “The Is­raelite women be­haved ex­actly as the Ish­maelite women to­day. But there were pious women in Is­rael who over­came their worldly temp­ta­tions and freely gave away their mir­rors be­cause they found no more need to beau­tify them­selves but came in­stead daily to the door of the tent of meet­ing to pray and hear re­li­gious dis­course for their ed­i­fi­ca­tion.”

Ibn Ezra un­der­stands that giv­ing up the mir­rors was a sign of pious un­der­tak­ing and once they were freed of their ob­ses­sion with van­ity and self, they had more room for holy en­deav­ors.

• Nah­manides also brings the idea that the mir­rors are ves­sels of the Evil In­cli­na­tion but he also looks at a dif­fer­ent as­pect of this sis­ter­hood. When the women un­der­stood that the wa­ter in this basin would be mixed with ink dis­solved from writ­ing God’s name to test women sus­pected of adul­tery, they joy­fully do­nated their mir­rors in or­der to re­store peace be­tween hus­band and wife. The So­tah test would ei­ther prove the be­trayal of the wife or re­as­sure the hus­band of her in­no­cence. Used pre­vi­ously when adorn­ing them­selves, the mir­rors would now be used to re­flect the moral fab­ric of so­ci­ety.

ALL THREE in­ter­pre­ta­tions men­tioned above rec­og­nize the uniquely fem­i­nine as­pect of the of­fer­ing. How­ever, none of them go as far as a midrashic in­ter­pre­ta­tion, quoted by Rashi and ap­pear­ing in many midrashic texts, which im­bues the mir­rors with in­ter­est­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight and im­port.

Ac­cord­ing to the midrash, when Pharaoh de­creed hard la­bor on the Is­raelites and threw the baby boys into the river, the men de­spaired and sep­a­rated from their wives, choos­ing celibacy over bring­ing life into such a world. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta ex­plains that the daugh­ters of Is­rael would go down to the river and God would send them lit­tle fishes, signs of fer­til­ity. The women cooked some of the fishes and sold the rest, buy­ing with the pro­ceeds wine and set­ting the stage for se­duc­tion as they set out to win their hus­bands back. They then went out to the fields, bring­ing their mir­rors with them. “Af­ter they had eaten, they took their mir­rors and looked into them to­gether with their hus­bands. She said: I am more beau­ti­ful than you. He said: I am more beau­ti­ful than you. In the course of this in­ter­ac­tion, their sex­ual de­sire was aroused and they be­came fruit­ful and mul­ti­plied.”

I have al­ways found this midrash fas­ci­nat­ing. The women take out their mir­rors, look at them­selves and then say that they are the more beau­ti­ful! This is not the kind of flir­ta­tion that nor­mally leads to de­sire!

And yet, that is pre­cisely what hap­pens.

Many years ago, I heard Dr. Aviva Zorn­berg speak about the power of awak­en­ing the “I” that is present in this midrash. The women force the men to look in the mir­rors and chal­lenge them to re­gain their sense of self. The women, in con­trast, have never lost a sense of who they are. By chal­leng­ing the men with the com­pet­i­tive and some­what ag­gres­sive open­ing of “I am more beau­ti­ful than you,” they awaken in the men some­thing that has be­come sup­pressed through slav­ery and op­pres­sion. Only when the “I” is present, taught Zorn­berg, can de­sire be awak­ened. It is this that the women with their fish, wine and mir­rors set out to achieve, the awak­en­ing of de­sire, in or­der to con­tinue bear­ing children into the un­cer­tain dark­ness of Egyp­tian slav­ery, for they are cred­ited with be­liev­ing against all odds in the fu­ture redemp­tion.

The midrash con­tin­ues: As soon as the Holy One Blessed be He told Moses to make the Taber­na­cle, all Is­rael came along to con­trib­ute. The women brought their mir­rors. When Moses saw the mir­rors, he was fu­ri­ous with them. “He said to Is­rael: Take sticks and break their thighs of those who brought them. What use are such mir­rors?” Moses re­jects the mir­rors, see­ing them as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of van­ity and the Evil In­cli­na­tion. They are at odds with his un­der­stand­ing of the Taber­na­cle as the con­struc­tion of some­thing pure and holy. Moses, who lives in a realm of sanc­tity so to­tally re­moved from the peo­ple that he needs to

Women, with their fish, wine and mir­rors, seek to awaken de­sire – in or­der to con­tinue bear­ing children into the un­cer­tain dark­ness of Egyp­tian slav­ery

wear a mask to shield them from the divine light shin­ing from his coun­te­nance, does not un­der­stand that th­ese mir­rors have a role to play in the hu­man-divine in­ter­ac­tion.

It is God who de­fends them: “Moses!” He says, “It was th­ese mir­rors that raised up all those hosts in Egypt! Take them and make out of them the basin and its stand for the priests in which they can pu­rify them­selves.” God un­der­stands that look­ing in a mir­ror is not just about van­ity but also about iden­tity and self. Mir­rors can be used to per­pet­u­ate ho­li­ness in the way that phys­i­cal­ity can be el­e­vated and chan­neled to­ward the sa­cred and spir­i­tual.

It is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant that the priests look in the basins as they wash their hands and feet be­fore be­gin­ning their sa­cred work. They should look care­fully to see who they are and what they are bring­ing to this holy space. A mir­ror can con­ceal but it can equally re­veal.

In this ter­ri­ble time of un­cer­tainty, we should look in the mir­ror, fo­cus in­ward and strengthen our in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive iden­tity. May we all find the strength to re­flect out­ward our best selves to those around us! ■

(Nechama Gold­man Barash)

THIS SMALL bronze con­cave mir­ror, dis­played in the Bri­tish Mu­seum, dates back to the time of an­cient Is­rael – and its han­dle is the fig­ure of a wo­man.

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