Pinny Arnon

Mirrors, Reflections, and The Extreme Holiness of Sexual Intimacy

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The mishkan/tabernacle in the desert and its vessels were constructed from materials that the nation donated for the effort. The donations came from everyone, both men and women, as the verse says, “The men came with the women; every generous hearted person” (Exodus 35:22).

The people gladly brought all sorts of finery – “bracelets and earrings and rings and buckles, all kinds of golden objects…blue, purple, or crimson wool, linen, goat hair, ram skins dyed red or tachash skins… silver and copper … and acacia wood” (Exodus 35:22-24) – and Moses welcomed their generous offerings. Yet there was one item that Moses was reluctant to accept. The women brought him their copper mirrors with which to construct the copper washbasin, but as Rashi tells us, “Moses rejected them because they were made for the yetzer hara” (Rashi on Exodus 38:8). Mirrors, Moses reasoned, were implements of vanity and were not fit for the vessels of the holy Temple.

Yet Hashem told Moses to accept and embrace this offering. “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to 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’” (Rashi on Exodus 38:8).

The simple understanding of the commentary is that the mirrors were precious to Hashem because the women utilized them to make themselves attractive so that their husbands would procreate with them. The bitter servitude of Egypt left the men weary and despondent. Not only were they exhausted from their backbreaking labor, but they were reluctant to bring a new generation of children into this living hell. The women, however, maintaining their faith in Hashem’s imminent deliverance, were determined to have children, and they utilized the mirrors to beautify themselves in order to attract their husbands for intimacy. “Many legions” were therefore the result of these holy mirrors.

On a more esoteric level, the mirrors were treasured by Hashem because they teach a more subtle and profound lesson. They were “more precious to Me than anything” because they reveal one of Torah’s deepest secrets. And they were a vital element of the Mishkan because they represent the very essence of the sanctuary and the ultimate truth of Hashem’s presence in this lowly physical realm.

On the surface, we tend to view the world as a battleground of good and evil. There are those things which are holy, and those that are profane. Spirituality is sacred and divine, and physicality is lowly and crass. The goal, many “religious” leaders preach, is to transcend the material crust that debases and imprisons us, and to embrace the supernal spirit that is our higher power and loftiest potential.

Indeed, we see that leaders of various spiritual systems practice celibacy, asceticism, and various forms of abstinence, all in an attempt to detach themselves from the physical in order to attain spiritual heights. Yet Torah ordains that all, including the most holy leaders and teachers, must seek marriage, intimacy, procreation, and full engagement in bodily affairs. Gluttony is surely forbidden, and numerous Torah practices are intended to train us to control our bodily drives and passions rather than allowing them to control us. But the Torah life is not one of denial and divorcement from the physical. In fact, physicality can be extraordinarily holy, and marital intimacy is one of the most sacred experiences we can have, comparable to the ecstatic union of our soul with Hashem.

This sanctity of physicality is represented by the mirrors. A mirror is a tool that enables one to look at her/himself. On the physical plane, one sees only what is on the surface. But the goal of this self observation is to peer inward, to see not only one’s “panim/face” in the mirror, but to penetrate deeper all the way to her/his “pnimyus/inner core.” What is in there? Who am I really? What is the nature of my ultimate existence?

What we will find is that all physicality is a “reflection” of a deeper, more essential reality. Torah itself is a mirror that allows us to see beneath the surface of ourselves and of all matter. Look at yourself, it instructs us. Look deeper and see behind the mask and veil.

Women tend to have an easier time with this type of penetrative vision. Men are more physical and carnal by nature. This is why it was the women who possessed the mirrors and who brought them to their husbands so they could see themselves in the looking-glass. What they taught the men – even Moses himself – is that physicality is not unholy because it too is simply a condensed form of Godliness. Even intimacy, at its source, is a sacred desire for fusion, union, and additional Godly creation and manifestation.

With this we can understand the relevance of the mirrors to the mishkan/tabernacle. The point of the mishkan, and of the Temple that succeeded it in Jerusalem, was to make a dwelling place for Hashem in the physical world. Indeed this is the intent of every mitzvah we perform – to fuse the spiritual and the material – and the sanctuary was the tangible representation of this ongoing project. The mirrors were used to make the washbasin which stood at the sanctuary’s entrance because this selfward and inward gaze is the entryway to all sanctification. We must look for the Godly source in everything – even the most physical and seemingly unchaste aspects of creation. When we trace it all the way back to its root and essence, we will find that this too is sacred and divine.

In such context, we can understand the wondrous revelation of the Kabbalist Avraham Abulafia, who teaches that Hashem’s ineffable name, “י-ה-ו-ה/Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei, is an acronym for “Yetzer Hatov V’yetzer Hara/the good inclination and the evil inclination.” How can this be?! Surely the “yetzer hatov/good inclination” is Godly, but can we dare to suggest that the “yetzer hara/evil inclination” is Godly as well? Yet if we truly understand that “Hashem echad/God is One,” then we have to admit that there can be nothing other than Him. If so, then He is hidden within everything, and it is our task to look deeply in the mirror to delve inward until we find and reveal Him.

— Excerpted, in part, from PNEI HASHEM, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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