Picture this: Moses and Aaron put out a call for donations for the Tabernacle. There is a need for everything required in construction and storage — metal, wood, wool, precious stones. And the response is overwhelming until the leaders ask the people to stop.
Inside the Tabernacle the metal of choice is gold. It covers the wooden beams that hold up the structure. The Menorah is made entirely of gold. So, is the altar. The table shines from its gold top.
But outside, there is another metal ordered by G-d — copper. This reddish ore is what greets the visitor to the courtyard of the Tabernacle. It covers the much larger altar, where the daily offerings are burned. Many if not most of the utensils were made of copper — whether pots, pans, shovels, sprinkling basins and hooks.
On the face of it, the use of the less expensive copper is puzzling, particularly when gold was so plentiful. There was no electricity in the desert so the higher conductivity of copper could not have been a reason. If anything, gold contains a longer lifespan than copper, which does not do well outside.
On the other hand, copper has properties that would suit a place where millions of people might gather. The metal has an antimicrobial trait and could prevent infection. It is also an essential nutrient. It shines brilliantly in the sun.
What we do know is that much of the copper was brought by the women. At first, they gave away their gold bracelets, rings and buckles. But then they contributed copper. From where? The women simply took their mirrors and deposited them outside the Tent of the Meeting.
When Moses showed up to review the latest donations, he was stunned. Millions of mirrors were piled up. As he saw it, they had been used by the Israelite women to put on lipstick, makeup or style their hair. There was nothing modest about this utensil.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, writes that Moses was disgusted. He saw these mirrors as having been used for sin — to tempt men into lechery. He ordered them removed. Gevalt!
Then, G-d stepped in. He commanded that the contribution of these women be accepted. In Rashi’s words:
“The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Receive them, because they are more dear to Me than anything else.’
Then G-d explains: These were the mirrors used by the women when the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. At the end of a day of back-breaking labor, the men would limp back to their huts, dying for sleep. They would be met by their wives, who brought food and drink. They knew that the best way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.
The women gently led their men to a nearby tree for a picnic. As the husbands munched their supper, the women would take out their mirrors and draw close to their partners. The mirrors would show the two of them together. “Look,” the wife would say, her tone flirtatious. “I am prettier than you.”
Soon, the men started getting interested. As the verse in Song of Songs reads, “Under the apple tree, I have aroused you.”
In their huge pop hit in 1942, Sam Stept and Charles Tobias wrote a version of the biblical verse as American women waited for their men to return home from World War II.
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Anyone else but me, anyone else but me.
In this week’s portion, the Torah ascribes an almost mystical power to the mirrors. They were responsible for an entire nation.
And he made the washstand 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. [Exodus 38:8]
The women’s mirrors were put to good use. They led to passion, pregnancy and children — lots of them. They kept the Israelites alive and fruitful in the worst of times. Many of the men didn’t want children when their chances of survival were slim. It was up to the women to change their minds, even if only for a few minutes.
Those copper mirrors that comprised the washstand would later be used to keep the family together. The water in the basin would test a wife accused by her husband of adultery. No, there were no witnesses to the deed, but the husband remained suspicious if not convinced. The alleged scarlet woman would drink the water from the basin and, if innocent, would return to her husband to make beautiful and healthy babies.
Because this is what G-d wants — love, babies and more love. The traditional Jewish woman would not be liberated. She would be a liberator — extracting her husband from slavery, whether from a taskmaster or career and brought to focus on life itself. She feared no man and would fight for her family until the end. Politics, money, ego, fame were all harmful distractions.
Little wonder that the women played a leading role in the Tabernacle. They were called wise-hearted, and they spun the blue, purple and crimson wool to make the priestly garments, roof and other coverings. Wasting no time, they would spin the goat hair while still on the animal. As the Torah states, the hearts of the women were “uplifted” with wisdom.
Perhaps, it was G-d’s way of saying thank you.