A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Exodus 35:1 - 38:20
March 1, 2003 27 Adar I 5763
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun, Rabbinic Fellow
In the midst of an elaborate description of Bezalel's artistic crafting of the Tabernacle, we read an unusual detail: "He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (Ex. 38:8). This copper laver served as a basin for cleansing waters so that the priests could enter the Tabernacle in a state of ritual purity. Why would Bezalel craft such an important vessel from women's mirrors? Why does the Torah mention this specific detail?
The rabbis noted with fascination this feature of the Tabernacle's construction. They read in its specification an echo of earlier times. They wove this mysterious verse into a striking midrash about the nature of our liberation from Egypt. In Tanhuma Pekudei, the following midrash appears:
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, What did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets, and they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands... And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, "I am more comely than you," and he would say, 'I am more comely than you." And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said, They bore two children at a time, others said, They bore twelve at a time, and still others said, Six hundred thousand... And all these numbers from the mirrors... In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts, as it is said, "All the hosts of God went out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 12:41) and it is said, "God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their hosts" (Ex. 12:51).
Thus, in defiance of Pharaoh's evil decree, the daughters of Israel used mirrors to ensure the continuity of the Israelite people. Through the seductive play of mirror images, these righteous women created the hosts of Israel. This story of miraculously robust fertility is based on a play-on-words from our Torah verse. Bezalel created the laver of copper from the "mirrors of women who performed tasks..." The Hebrew word for these women (tzovot) is from the same root as the word for "hosts." Therefore, a midrashic translation of this verse reads, "the mirrors of those women who created hosts" (Avivah Zornberg, "The Particulars of Rapture," p. 58). The very mirrors which inspired arousal and procreation during the time of our persecution in Egypt will now serve in our Tabernacle as a receptacle for washing the hands and feet of the priests.
This midrash leaves us with many provocative questions. Why did the women use mirrors to seduce their husbands? Why was it arousing for husbands to hear their wives proclaiming their own beauty? Why would these mirrors serve a role in purifying the priests for cultic worship?
I would suggest that this midrash teaches an important lesson about the sanctity of the body and its role in our service to God. By looking in the mirror and celebrating their feminine beauty, the Israelite women taught their husbands to appreciate their own bodies. This affirmation of the physical also lifted the spirits of the downtrodden slaves, enabling them to savor the sensual and produce the hosts of our nation. When the priests entered the Tabernacle and washed their hands and feet in the copper laver of women's mirrors, they too affirmed the holiness of the body. The service of the Tabernacle was not to be a disembodied cult of spiritualized worship. When the priests entered the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, they did so in both body and spirit. Women's mirrors, which might have been associated with the vanity of the body, came instead to represent tools of redemption. We are never to forget our physical beauty and the sacred gifts of our bodies. The priestly class is perhaps most susceptible to forgetting this important Jewish value. We find in many other world cultures that religious aspirants shun the body as an obstacle to true enlightenment — only by mortifying the flesh and by transcending the body can one hope to achieve union with God's presence.
However, our biblical priests faced a constant reminder of the centrality of the body in Jewish life. As they dipped their hands and feet into this mirrored vessel, they connected with our history of redemption in all its bodily glory.