PEKUDEI. All Done With Mirrors

An Extraordinary Commentary

This year being a leap year, the sidrot of Vayakhel and Pekudei are read separately.   Most years they are read together.  Their content is similar, dealing as they do with the making of the vessels and the fabrics of the Mishkan.  The majority of the verses are almost-exact repetitions of the corresponding verses in the preceding sidrot except that there the instructions were given and here they are put into practice.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Rashi commentary is unusually brief.  However, there is one notable exception.  38:8 tells us something we have not heard before.

 He made the Kiyor (laver) of copper and its pedestal of copper with the mirrors of the female congregants (ha-tsov’ot)  at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting

 The full significance of these bright polished sheets of copper that the women used as mirrors is explained at length by Rashi who adopts the midrashic rendering of ha-tsov’ot not as “female congregants” but as “women who produced legions”. He writes:-

The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors into which they would look when beautifying themselves.  Even these they did not withhold from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan.  But Moses rejected them because they were made to feed the evil inclination. [However] G-D said “Accept them because they are the dearest to Me of all the contributions. By means of them, the women established many’ legions’ of offspring (tsov’ot).  When their husbands would be exhausted by the crushing hard labour imposed upon them, the wives would  …feed them. Then they would take the mirrors and each woman would view herself together with her husband in the mirror and would coax him seductively with words, saying “Aren’t I more beautiful than you!” By this means, they would arouse their husbands and intimacy would ensue. There they would conceive and give birth, as it is written:  “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Shir haShirim 8:5)

 In this extraordinary Rashi, we have presented for us in a nutshell the Jewish approach to sexual intimacy in all its complexity!

Where Intention and Circumstance are All-Important

There are areas of halacha where the same act can be performed by two people with one of them committing a sin while for the other the act is permissible or even a mitsva – all depending on the intention or the circumstance.

Let us take, for example, clearing a Shabbat table of dirty dishes.  If this is done with the intention to make a clear surface for learning Torah or hosting an oneg Shabbat, it belongs in the category of a hekhsher mitsva (preparation for a mitsva).  However, if to save time after Shabbat, it is Rabbinically forbidden as preparation for a weekday.

 A different example in the ethical realm is lying.  The Torah states mi-dvar sheker tirkhok, “distance yourself from uttering falsehoods” (Ex.23:7). Yet there is an exception, taught to us by G-D Himself!  Sarah, hearing she was to have a baby at 90, instinctively laughs and exclaims After all my languishing, shall I again have youth? Besides, my husband is old! When G-D reports Sarah’s words to Abraham, He changes it to: Shall I indeed bear, now that I am old!  The Midrash (Bereshit Raba 48:18) explains that when one’s intention is to maintain peace, and most especially domestic harmony, one has license to bend the truth (even though it is unlikely that a tsadik like Abraham would have been offended by a reference to his old age!).  

But there is no area where this is as dramatically illustrated as that of sexual intimacy.  Indulged extramaritally, it is emphatically proscribed by the Torah as the antithesis of kedusha with sometimes very severe adverse halachic consequences.  Engaged in at halachically appropriate times within the sacred sphere of halachic marriage, its consummation is kodesh kadashim, the holiest of the holy.

Kodesh kadashim is the term Rabbi Akiva uses in the Mishna (Yadayim 3:5) to describe Shir ha-Shirim (“Song of Songs”), the love-song illustrating the ‘marriage’ between G-D and the nation of Israel.  Its sacred message is concealed within a parable celebrating overt sexual love between a shepherd and a shepherdess. Yet, Rabbi Akiva declares “all the (biblical) Ketuvim are holy but Shir ha-Shirim is the holiest of the holy!”  This illustrious Torah Sage had no problem with a poem couched in openly amatory language. Just as G-D had no problem with the vanity-mirrors of the wives of Israel being elevated to be used for the kiyor in the sacred Mishkan.

The Intertwined Cherubim – Faces of a Man and a Woman

Yet more vivid in its imagery even than this is the symbolism of the Keruvim, the angelic cherubim attached to the kaporet, the cover which adorned the Aron, the holy Ark placed in the kodesh kadashim.

 The Talmud (Yoma 54a) declares in the name of Rav Ketina: When Am Yisrael would ascend to the Temple on the Festivals, they would be shown the Keruvim joined together in an embrace …and [the Kohanim] would tell them: “See the fondness G-D has for you is like the fondness between a [wedded] male and female”.

Rabeinu Bachya (1255-1340) extends the analogy: Just as there cannot be any intermediary between a man and a woman (symbolised by the embrace) so there can be no intermediary between G-D and Am Yisrael.

 And this from Rambam (1138-1204) who is not normally given to poetic or ardent language in his Mishneh Torah, a halachic work: What is the proper degree of love that a person should have for G-D? …Until he is lovesick! The thoughts of a man who is lovesick for a woman are never diverted from that woman. He is always obsessed with her, when he sits, when he rises, when he eats, when he drinks.  Even greater than this should be the love a person has for G-D!” (Laws of Teshuva 10:3)

When the Yetser ha-Ra is Very Good

In the Midrash (Bereshit Raba 9:7) we find an extraordinary declaration: R’ Nachman said in the name of R’ Shmuel (bar Nachman): Had the Torah just said (of the completed Creation): “Behold, it was very good” we would have said it refers to the good desire (yetser ha-tov). Why then does it say (Gen.1:31): And behold it was very good”? We must deduce that “very good” [as opposed to just “good”] is alluding to an additional desire, namely the evil desire (yetser ha-ra). Can the evil desire really be “very good”? That is astonishing!   But [contemplating more deeply], were it not for the yetser ha-ra, no man would ever build a house, take a wife or beget children.

There we have it!  The yetser ha-ra utilised in the service of G-D and kedusha, sacred pursuits – of which there is none greater than a loving marriage and siring children – is, in a very real sense greater, more wondrous than the yetser ha-tov.

Mirror Images

The copper mirrors in which husband and wife would admire each other’s reflection in the sacred cause of begetting “legions”, as well as the male-female keruvim of gold which “’met’ each other from opposite directions, symbolise the union and consummation of opposites.

Without delving into the kabbalistic realm which is beyond the scope of this essay, we may observe that when man and woman unite in marriage they are drawing upon the power of the “cosmic marriage” – the bonding of the Divine masculine and feminine energies which generate all existence, or “the Holy One and His Shechina” as we declare in meditations preceding certain mitsvot. In theology, this is sometimes expressed as G-D being both transcendent and imminent. It should be stressed that in Jewish theology, G-D in His essence is One and indivisible and we are speaking here of manifestations and qualities of the Divine as we humans comprehend them.

Perhaps the most glorious depiction of the union of G-D and His Shechina anywhere in the Torah is recorded in the closing verses of Sefer Shemot where, we are told, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of G-D covered the Mishkan. Moses could not enter for the cloud rested (shachan) upon it, and the glory of G-D (Y—H– -V–H) filled the Mishkan.

Is this not in truth “the union of G-D and His Shechina” covering, suffusing and caressing the holiest-of-the-holies, the Mishkan (same root as shachan and shechina) mirroring the renewed sacred marriage vows of G-D and the People of Israel!


About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.