In this morning’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites’ building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, along with all of its furnishings and the special clothing of the Priests. This is one of two parashiyot that describe this. And, this is after God has communicated all of these instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai over the course of two previous parashiyot. That the Torah takes so much time to describe the details not once, but two separate times is an indication of the important role of the mishkan in ancient Israelite religion. The mishkan, the portable Temple that the Israelites carried with them for forty years in the wilderness, symbolically represents the permanent Temple that stood in Jerusalem for nearly one thousand years and served as the center of Jewish religious life.
Once the mishkan, and later the Temple, was put into service, there were very specific regulations about who could enter its precincts, as well as how close to the innermost chamber one could go. Only the kohanim, the priests, could enter the inner sancta, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and just once a year. Common Israelite males were allowed inside up to a certain point from which they could watch some of the rituals, but the furthest into the interior that women were allowed did not even provide a few of the priestly service.
It was believed that if a person transgressed the furthest boundary permitted to him or her, that person risked being struck down by heavenly fire. This included, by the way, a priest who entered while not in a state of ritual purity.
With such rigid, restrictive access to the Temple, it is somewhat surprising that the construction of the mishkan was so democratic. The Torah regularly emphasizes the involvement of all of the Israelites. They brought voluntary donations of precious metals, stones, cloth, leather, and wood. A half shekel tax was required of every Israelite male. Most significantly, everyone was given the opportunity to be involved in the craftsmanship. It was a meritocracy. Whoever had the skills in weaving, building, metalwork, etc., was invited to participate, regardless of tribe, pedigree, or gender.
What stands out in particular are the numerous mentions of women’s contributions to the mishkan. Over and over, the Torah makes sure to tell us about women’s involvement in the construction of the mishkan. And not simply general statements. We know about specific contributions that they made.
Because the texts that we have inherited reflect more patriarchal times, whenever the Torah does say something about a woman, either individually or as a class, we ought to pay close attention. Sometimes, stories involving women are more fully developed. On other occasions, we find oblique references which might hint at a more complete oral tradition that has been lost to us.
Towards the end of Parashat Vayakhel, we read about the kiyor nechoshet. The bronze laver, or washing fountain.
וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
“He made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)
The fountain was used by the priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before entering the holy precincts and performing the rituals. For some reason, the Torah wants us to take note that the metal used for constructing this laver came from melted down women’s mirrors. In ancient times, a hand mirror was made out of a highly polished piece of bronze or other metal and was quite valuable. Glass was not available.
Why this detail? To further confuse matters, when Moses received instructions for how to build the fountain back in chapter 30, there was no indication of the source of the metal. That detail appears only here. We are left with questions. Why was the fountain made out of these melted down mirrors? Why are the women described in this unusual way:
הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
– depending on the translation “the women who flocked / performed tasks / gathered together at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting?” This expression appears here and in only one other place in the Bible.
The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna claims that these were women who “performed menial work” and that they were “at the bottom of the occupational and social scale.” The Torah goes out of its way to record their donation of these personal items because they “displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion.” (JPS Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 230) Even the lowliest women gave up their most precious possessions to build the mishkan.
The thirteenth century Spanish commentator Ramban offers an explanation of the p’shat, the plain sense meaning, of the verse. The women were so eager to participate in the building of the mishkan that they voluntary offered a very valuable, personal belonging. The word tzov’ot is used because the women assembled like an army with their mirrors. Tzava means army or host. Tzov’ot conveys a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. They rushed, like soldiers assembling for a muster.
The commentator Ibn Ezra offers a sober explanation. (*You might not like this.) The way of women, he says, is make themselves appear pretty by looking at their faces in metal or glass mirrors in order to arrange the hats on their heads. There were some Israelite women who abandoned the vanities of the world, giving up their mirrors which they no longer needed. They would come every day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and hear the words of the mitzvot.
In a slight variation, the commentator Hizkuni says that the women assembled there daily to hear the praises and singing of the kohanim and leviim. Another commentator, Sforno, claims that they came to hear the words of the Living God.
All three of these explanations set up a dichotomy between concern with female attention to physical appearance, on the one hand, and piety, on the other.
Rashi cites a midrash that offers a more colorful explanation. When the Israelite women showed up with all of their mirrors, Moses was disgusted. These objects that women use to adorn themselves serve the purposes of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Moses wants to reject the gift. But the Holy One sees something different. God says to Moses: Accept them. These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else! When the Israelites were in Egypt, the men would be off working in the fields, too exhausted to even come home after work. So their wives would bring food and drink out to them in the fields and feed them. And they would bring their mirrors. They would entice their men, looking together at their reflections and exclaiming, “look how much prettier I am than you.” And they would awaken their husbands’ desires. That is how the Israelite population flourished in Egypt.
The Torah describes the mirrors with the words b’marot hatzov’ot. The Israelite women used these mirrors to create a host – an army – of children in Egypt. The Talmud cites this midrash as one of several supports for the claim that the redemption of the Israelites from slavery took place due to the righteousness of women.
Why were these mirrors used specifically to make the bronze fountain? Rashi explain that the fountain played a central role in subduing a jealous husband and restoring peace to the home. The ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, involved the use of water drawn from the bronze fountain. A woman whose husband suspected her of cheating with another man would drink the water in order to prove her innocence.
In contrast to Ibn Ezra and the others, Rashi’s explanation integrates sexuality with pious intent. In the midrash, Moses acts like a prude, but God sees something holy and life-affirming in these mirrors.
Yet all of these explanations reflect the age-old stereotype that women are vain and focused on their looks and must use their sexuality to succeed. For Ibn Ezra and the others, it is a rejection of the mirror, a denial of their sexuality, that leads to piety. For Rashi, it is the wives’ embrace of sexual desire during a particularly dark and depressing time in our history that prompts God’s praise. For all of them, the fountain made from the women’s mirrors is the primary item in the Temple that restores the relationship between husband and wife when she is suspected of sexual impropriety.
Because our traditional texts so rarely describe women’s experiences, we must try to celebrate them where they occur, even though they may reflect a patriarchal worldview. As society has become more egalitarian over the past two centuries, we have tried to include women in traditionally male aspects of religious life. Perhaps we ought to consider seeing men in light of women’s traditional roles as well.
Even today, in 2016, in Northern California, we still fall into traditional patterns of gender stereotypes in so many ways.
I like the idea of God rebuking Moses, almost playfully, for his negative reaction to the women’s mirrors. There is a wisdom and a piety expressed in the ability to integrate the physical with the spiritual. It is the women who are aware of this. It is Moses, and by extension the men, who are in the dark. It seems that God wants to bring us into the light.