The Sanctuary and all of its furnishings are described in exquisite detail in this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, with one exception: the Ki’ur, the large wash basin in which the priests sanctified themselves by washing their hands and feet prior to each Divine service. Whereas virtually all the other items in the Sanctuary are given exact measurements, here the Torah speaks only in general terms. What makes the wash basin unique? What message is the Torah conveying in highlighting its uniqueness?
For an answer, we turn to the verse that states that the basin was made of the “mirrors of the service women” [Ex. 38:8]. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (19th century Germany), the phrase “ba-marot ha-tzovot” (mirrors of the service women) suggests that the copper mirrors were not melted down at all, but that the wash basin was “…fitted together almost without any alteration at all, so that it would be recognizable that the basin consisted of mirrors”.
This explanation raises additional questions. Of all contributions to the Sanctuary, why should the mirrors retain their unique identity? Does it not seem curious that the very symbol of vanity would find a new incarnation as a central piece inside the Sanctuary? Indeed, without first stopping at the basin to wash their hands and feet, the priests could not begin the Temple service. How could such “vanities” become such a significant aspect of our Sanctuary?
According to Rashi, the inclusion of the women’s mirrors inside the Sanctuary is really the story of a religious metamorphosis; not the rejection of the physical, but rather the sanctification of the physical. And herein, it seems to me, lies the true message of the Sanctuary.
In his commentary to Ex. 38:8, Rashi cites our Sages, who taught that when the Israelite women brought a gift offering of the actual mirrors, they were initially rejected by Moses because they were made for the evil instinct. But God said to Moses: “Accept them; these are more beloved to me than anything else. Through these mirrors, the women established many legions in Egypt.” (A play on the word “tzovot”, translated as “service women”, but which literally means “legions”, and is a reference to the multitudes of children whom the women conceived and birthed.)
Rashi continues: “When the husbands would come home exhausted from backbreaking work, their wives would bring them food and drink. And they would take the mirrors, and would appear together with their husbands in the reflection of the mirror. Thus they would entice their husbands (in order to) become pregnant” [Midrash Tanchuma].
The mirrors thus represent the women’s unswerving faith in their people’s future, which is all the more impressive given that at that time, the Israelites were being enslaved and their male babies thrown into the Nile during the Egyptian subjugation. Logic certainly dictated not having any children. After all, how could one bring innocent babies into a life of suffering and likely death?!
But the women were sustained by the tradition of the Covenant of the Pieces [Gen. 15], God’s promise of redemption. Consider what would have happened had the Israelite women not found a way to entice their husbands. Jewish history would have ended almost before it began, in the very first exile of Egypt, devoid of a next generation of Jewish continuity.
In effect, the transformation of these mirrors of desire into the basin of purification is the Torah’s way of rewarding the women for their devotion and explaining to future generations the Torah’s ideal of the sanctification of the physical and the uplifting of the material. They looked into the mirrors and saw not only themselves and their husbands, but the multitudes of a Jewish future.
A Talmudic teaching brings home this point to a striking degree: “Rav Katina said: When the Jewish people would go up to Jerusalem during the festivals, the keepers of the Sanctuary would roll back the curtain covering the holy ark, and would reveal to the Jews who came up to Jerusalem, the cherubs, which were in the form of a male and female embracing each other. And they would say, ‘See the love that God has for you, like the love of a male and female’” [BT, Yoma 54a].
Love for another, expressed in the highest form by love for one’s beloved, is the greatest manifestation of sanctity, and it is precisely this attraction that has the power to secure our Jewish eternity. Thus, the Sanctuary is sanctified by the mirrors of the women in Egypt, who taught, by their example, how to turn the most physical human drive into the highest act of Divine service.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.