Ari Sacher

‘Be prepared’: Parashat Vayakhel 5784

Our journey begins with the portions of Teruma and Tetzaveh, which serve as requirements specifications for the Tabernacle (Mishkan), its utensils, and the priestly garments. In the following portion of Ki Tisa, G-d instructs Moshe how to manage the yearly donations of the half-shekel, He elects Betzalel to serve as the lead artisan for the Mishlan, and then everything goes south: Fearing that Moshe has died, the Jewish people panic, Aaron builds a Golden Calf that the Jewish People worship, and the rest is history.

Sandwiched into all of this are the directions to build the washstand (kiyor) [Shemot 30:18]: “You shall make a washstand of copper and its base of copper for washing, and you shall place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and you shall put water therein.” The kiyor was to be used to wash the hands and feet of the priests (kohanim) before administering in the Mishkan. The astute reader will notice that the specifications for the kiyor seem out of place – every other utensil of the Mishkan other than the incense altar appears in the Portion of Teruma. Why is the kiyor not described along with the rest of the utensils? The astute reader will also notice that something is missing. As part of the requirements specifications for the Mishkan and all its utensils other than the kiyor, the Torah describes [1] the material from which the item was to be made and [2] its precise dimensions. The only exception to this rule is the kiyor[1]. This problem is compounded by the fact that not washing one’s hands and feet could have catastrophic consequences [Shemot 29:20]: “When [the kohanim] enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die.” As if to emphasize this warning, the Torah repeats itself [Shemot 29:21]: “They shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.” Rashi[2] implements an elementary rule of logic and concludes that if they do not wash their hands and feet, then they will most certainly die[3]. Washing of the hands and feet is considered a “safety-critical process.” In the development of military systems, safety-critical systems work by a draconian set of rules. Safety critical systems must contain “interlocks” to prevent the inadvertent activation of a process until certain conditions are met. For example, the rocket motor of a canister-launched missile should not be able to ignite while the wings are still folded, lest the missile explode inside the canister and harm the user. Safety-critical software development is even worse. According to DO-178C, the most accepted standard for safety-critical software, software code for all safety-critical systems must be reviewed after it has been compiled[4]. How could the instructions for the safety-critical kiyor not include something as basic as its dimensions?

A comment by the Seforno[5] can give us some traction. The Seforno explains, “[The kiyor] was not mentioned before with the other vessels that were part of the Mishkan. The reason is that the kiyor was not instrumental in attracting the Divine Presence (shechina) to the Mishkan. Its function was merely preparatory to the service of the kohanim in the Mishkan.” The other utensils of the Mishkan – the ark, its cover (kaporet), the candelabrum (menorah) and the altars – were all integral parts of the service in the Mishkan. The kiyor was not, and so the description of the kiyor was left as almost an afterthought. The explanation of the Ramban[6] can propel us another step forward. The Ramban asserts that the requirement was only that the kohen wash both his hands (which are dirty by nature) and feet (the kohen worked barefoot) before he administered. He could take the water from anywhere he desired: from the kiyor or from the sink. As proof, the Ramban notes that on the day of Yom Kippur, the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) would wash his hands and feet not from the kiyor but from a golden jug (kiton). The kiyor in and of itself was not important and so the Torah’s discussion of the kiyor does not belong with the discussion of the other vessels.

Combining the explanations of the Seforno and the Ramban offers new insight. The kiyor was a means, not a goal. Before a kohen administers in the Mishkan, he must prepare himself by washing his hands and feet, similar to the way a surgeon prepares himself for surgery. In both instances, the smallest lack of meticulousness in hygiene could lead to death.

Now that we understand why the description of the kiyor is separated from the descriptions of the other utensils of the Mishkan, we must still explain why the dimensions of the kiyor are missing. To address this question, we must take a closer look at a verse in this week’s portion of Vayakhel that describes the actual building of the kiyor [Shemot 38:8]: “[Betzalel] made the kiyor of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” What were these mirrors and where did they come from? In a rather well-known comment, Rashi quotes our Sages in the Midrash who suggest that the mirrors were used by Jewish women in Egypt to seduce their husbands. When the women brought the mirrors to Moshe to use in the Mishkan, he rejected them because they had been used to inspire lustful thoughts. G-d thought differently, overriding Moshe’s decision and telling him, “Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.”

I would like to suggest an alternate, more scientific, explanation. Modern mirrors are most commonly produced by the wet deposition of silver or aluminium on glass[7]. Usually, the mirror is “back-silvered” or “second-surfaced”, meaning that the reflected light reaches the reflective layer after passing through the glass. In the time of Moshe, 3,500 years ago, mirrors were made from metal. Metal reflects light naturally, but over time it oxidizes and becomes scratched. The oxidization layer combined with small ridges created by the scratches reduce the shine and prevent light from reflecting back. Polishing the metal grinds off the oxidization layer along with a very thin layer of the metal itself, smoothing the metal, removing imperfections and making it gleam. The polishing process cannot be performed in one shot. The process begins with a coarse grit sandpaper, somewhere around 40 to 80 grit. The metal is sanded, making sure that any large scratches are sanded out. Then, the mirror is sanded again with a finer sandpaper, somewhere between 100 to 160 grit. The sanding must be performed evenly to ensure uniform reflection of light. Then the mirror is sanded a third time with finer sandpaper, around 200 grit. This step is repeated iteratively, using progressively finer sandpaper. Depending on the condition of the metal and the sanding technique, between four to eight passes are required. It is important to apply consistent and generally light to moderate pressure. Finally, the mirror is buffed to a sheen with microfiber cloth, completing the process. In Moshe’s time, making a mirror required elbow-grease. It required preparation. The reason that G-d found those copper mirrors so precious was because of the amount of effort required in making them. The Ibn Ezra[8] makes an astonishing comment: The kiyor was constructed from all the mirrors that were brought. It had no predefined dimensions – it measured whatever size all the women’s copper mirrors came to. The kiyor was a metaphor for the criticality of preparation. Its location in the Torah, its dimensions, the metal it was made from, and its very purpose all sounded the same call: “Be prepared!”

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] This is not completely true. The dimensions of the menorah are also missing. Nevertheless, the structure of the menorah is described in such intricate detail that we can let this one go with a warning.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi,” was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the 11th century.

[3] Rashi’s logic is not bullet-proof. The only logical conclusion that can be made from the Torah’s statement is the contrapositive: If a Kohen died, it means that he must not have washed from the kiyor.

[4] You computer engineers just gasped, right?

[5] Ovadia ben Jacob Seforno, known as “The Seforno,” lived in Italy at the turn of the 16th century.

[6] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban,” lived in Spain and Israel in the 13th century.

[7] A substrate of tin is first applied to the glass as silver will not adhere to glass.

[8] Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, usually referred to as “The Ibn Ezra,” lived in Cordoba, Spain, at the turn of the 12th century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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