Mirror, mirror on the wall
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! ■
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.