"The Mirrors of the Women": Beauty, Desire and the Divine
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Based on a class by Rabbi Alex Israel
This session will explore the place of beauty and desire within Judaism. Today’s discussion begins with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), God’s dwelling place among the Israelites in the desert and the “place of meeting”. The Mishkan was built primarily using donated materials. During the Torah’s discussion of sacred vessels used in the Mishkan, we are introduced to the copper laver. This water basin was made of copper and used by the priests to wash their hands and feet before they performed their service. There is an unexpected detail in the description of the raw materials donated to create this copper laver, which was crafted by Bezalel, the chief artisan of the Mishkan.
(יז) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (יח) וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ כִּיּ֥וֹר נְחֹ֛שֶׁת וְכַנּ֥וֹ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת לְרָחְצָ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֗וֹ בֵּֽין־אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּבֵ֣ין הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְנָתַתָּ֥ שָׁ֖מָּה מָֽיִם׃ (יט) וְרָחֲצ֛וּ אַהֲרֹ֥ן וּבָנָ֖יו מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־רַגְלֵיהֶֽם׃ (כ) בְּבֹאָ֞ם אֶל־אֹ֧הֶל מוֹעֵ֛ד יִרְחֲצוּ־מַ֖יִם וְלֹ֣א יָמֻ֑תוּ א֣וֹ בְגִשְׁתָּ֤ם אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לְשָׁרֵ֔ת לְהַקְטִ֥יר אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃(17) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (18) Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, (19) and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn] from it. (20) When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the LORD,
(ח) וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ (ס)(8) He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
It is interesting to note that Text #2 specifies the source of the materials donated to the laver, something that is not mentioned with other Mishkan vessels.
Note: Mirrors in ancient times were not made of glass but of burnished metal or polished onyx, to create a reflective surface. Copper, silver, gold and bronze were beaten into thin sheets and worked to flatness until you could see your face reflected in them.
Part One: Vanity or Holiness?
The copper of the mirrors came from “the women who assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting”. Who were those women? Why did they donate their mirrors? Were their mirrors appropriate for use in a sanctuary?
Let’s compare the explanations two commentators offer to address these questions, and highlight the potential connection between vanity and holiness.
Rashi suggests that there is a deeper cultural history being described. Rashi lived in France in the 11th century. He is the most important commentator on the Bible and Talmud, and one of the most famous scholars in Jewish history.
(א) במראת הצבאת. בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ בְיָדָן מַרְאוֹת שֶׁרוֹאוֹת בָּהֵן כְּשֶׁהֵן מִתְקַשְּׁטוֹת, וְאַף אוֹתָן לֹא עִכְּבוּ מִלְּהָבִיא לְנִדְבַת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, וְהָיָה מוֹאֵס מֹשֶׁה בָהֵן מִפְּנֵי שֶׁעֲשׂוּיִם לְיֵצֶר הָרָע, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ"ה קַבֵּל, כִּי אֵלּוּ חֲבִיבִין עָלַי מִן הַכֹּל, שֶׁעַל יְדֵיהֶם הֶעֱמִידוּ הַנָּשִׁים צְבָאוֹת רַבּוֹת בְּמִצְרָיִם; כְּשֶׁהָיוּ בַעְלֵיהֶם יְגֵעִים בַּעֲבוֹדַת פֶּרֶךְ, הָיוּ הוֹלְכוֹת וּמוֹלִיכוֹת לָהֶם מַאֲכָל וּמִשְׁתֶּה, וּמַאֲכִילוֹת אוֹתָם וְנוֹטְלוֹת הַמַּרְאוֹת, וְכָל אַחַת רוֹאָה עַצְמָהּ עִם בַּעְלָהּ בַּמַּרְאָה, וּמְשַׁדַּלְתּוֹ בִדְבָרִים, לוֹמַר אֲנִי נָאָה מִמְּךָ, וּמִתּוֹךְ כַּךְ מְבִיאוֹת לְבַעְלֵיהֶן לִידֵי תַאֲוָה וְנִזְקָקוֹת לָהֶם וּמִתְעַבְּרוֹת וְיוֹלְדוֹת שָׁם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר תַּחַת הַתַּפּוּחַ עוֹרַרְתִּיךָ (שיר השירים ח'), וְזֶה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר בְּמַרְאֹת הַצּוֹבְאוֹת. וְנַעֲשָׂה הַכִּיּוֹר מֵהֶם, שֶׁהוּא לָשׂוּם שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּוֹ
(1) במראת הצבאת OF THE MIRRORS OF THE WOMEN CROWDING — The Israelitish women possessed mirrors of copper into which they used to look when they adorned themselves. Even these did they not hesitate to bring as a contribution towards the Tabernacle. Now Moses was about to reject them since they were made to pander to their vanity, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Accept them; these are dearer to Me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt!”
For when their husbands were tired through the crushing labour they used to bring them food and drink and induced them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors, and each gazed at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am handsomer than you!” Thus they awakened their husbands’ affection and subsequently became the mothers of many children...And it was for this reason that the laver was made of them (the mirrors) — because it served the purpose of promoting peace between man and wife.
According to Rashi, Moses says that the mirrors were used for vanity and are therefore inappropriate for the Mishkan. God says to accept and cherish them because these mirrors were essential to the survival of the Jewish people. This text praises the women for using their beauty for the good of the nation.
Let us look at a completely different explanation from Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), the great medieval commentator, philosopher and scholar.
(א) ובי''ת במראות. ... וטעם הצובאות. כי משפט כל הנשים להתיפות לראות פניהם בכל בקר במראות נחשת או זכוכית לתקן הפאדות שעל ראשיהם. הם הנזכרים בספר ישעיה כי מנהג ישראל היה כמנהג ישמעאל עד היום. והנה היו בישראל נשים עובדות השם שסרו מתאות זה העולם ונתנו מראותיהן נדבה כי אין להם צורך עוד להתיפות. רק באות יום יום אל פתח אוהל מועד להתפלל ולשמוע דברי המצות. וזהו אשר צבאו פתח אוהל מועד. כי היו רבות.
And the reason that the Torah says "הצובאות", these crowds of women, is because women habitually look in the mirror- made of copper or glass- every morning to put their headdress into shape... Now, amongst the Israelites were certain women, dedicated to the service of God, who distanced themselves from worldly desire. They donated their mirrors to the Mishkan, as they had no further use for beautification. These women would come each day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and to hear the details of the mitzvot. And these crowds near the entrance of the tent are the "הצובאות" referred to in the Torah.
Ibn Ezra says that there was a group of women who lived an ascetic existence, dedicating their lives to God. These women distanced themselves from beauty and worldly desires; they therefore no longer needed their mirrors. They gave up their mirrors, which were melted down in order to create a holy object, as an expression of their aspirations for a more holy existence.
Rashi and Ibn Ezra agree that the mirror is a tool of beauty, and that beauty is rooted in worldly, human desires. They differ on the purpose of that desire, and that difference opens up the complicated subject of the nature of desire. Taking Rashi’s view, beauty triggers desire, which is a necessary part of procreation. From Ibn Ezra’s perspective, concern with one’s own beauty — or vanity — is something to overcome or transcend in service of the divine. Both commentators understand that the impulses associated with the desire for beauty are part of the human condition. Sometimes we put our desires to holy/positive uses, while other times we may control or deny our desires in order to approach the holy. Regardless, we struggle with the pull of beauty and its resulting desires.
Part Two: The Good of the “Evil Inclination”?
The next text is from the Babylonian Talmud. In it, the sages discuss a “fight” with two incarnations of “evil inclinations” — one for idol worship and the other for sinful sexual relations. They manage to kill the first one. Let’s look at what happens when they apprehend the second one. Read the text with your chavruta partner and discuss the questions together
יומא ס״ט ב:י״א-י״ב
אמרו הואיל ועת רצון הוא נבעי רחמי איצרא דעבירה בעו רחמי ואמסר בידייהו
אמר להו חזו דאי קטליתו ליה לההוא כליא עלמא חבשוהו תלתא יומי ובעו ביעתא בת יומא בכל ארץ ישראל ולא אשתכח אמרי היכי נעביד נקטליה כליא עלמא ניבעי רחמי אפלגא פלגא ברקיעא לא יהבי כחלינהו לעיניה ושבקוהו ואהני דלא מיגרי ביה לאיניש בקריבתה
When they saw that the evil inclination for idol worship was delivered into their hands as they requested, the Sages said: Since it is an auspicious time, let us pray also concerning the evil inclination for sin in the area of sexual relationships. They prayed, and it was also delivered into their hands.
Zechariah the prophet said to them: See and understand that if you kill this evil inclination the world will be destroyed because as a result there will also no longer be any desire to procreate. They followed his warning, and instead of killing the evil inclination they imprisoned it for three days. At that time, people searched for a fresh egg throughout all of Eretz Yisrael and could not find one. Since the inclination to reproduce was quashed, the chickens stopped laying eggs. They said: What should we do? If we kill it, the world will be destroyed. If we pray for half, i.e., that only half its power be annulled, nothing will be achieved because Heaven does not grant half gifts, only whole gifts. What did they do? They gouged out its eyes, effectively limiting its power, and set it free. And this was effective to the extent that a person is no longer aroused to commit incest with his close relatives.
This is a remarkable story about the “death” of human inclinations to do things they shouldn’t, which the sages call upon God to help them vanquish. God transforms those inclinations into a physical form which can be captured and killed. While idolatry seems easy enough to dispose of, removing the inclination for sinful sexual activity is more complicated. Killing it would mean also killing the desire to procreate, without which the human race would be finished. This seems to be consistent with Rashi’s comment that there is a necessary role played by desire and sexuality.
ברכות נ״ד א:ו׳
חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה שנאמר (דברים ו, ה) ואהבת את ה' אלהיך בכל לבבך וגו' בכל לבבך בשני יצריך ביצר טוב וביצר הרע ובכל נפשך אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך ובכל מאדך בכל ממונך ד"א בכל מאדך בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו
The mishna articulates a general principle: One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him, as it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The mishna explains this verse as follows: “With all your heart” means with your two inclinations, with your good inclination and your evil inclination, both of which must be subjugated to the love of God. With all your soul means even if God takes your soul. “And with all your might” means with all your money, as money is referred to in the Bible as might. Alternatively, it may be explained that “with all your might” means with every measure that He metes out to you; whether it is good or troublesome, thank Him.
Desire is not inherently positive or negative — our impulses are kept in check by our self-awareness and by laws. We agree on what is appropriate behavior, and examine the undercurrents of temptation and sin in our own actions. Having impulses but not acting on them is not the same as removing those impulses all together.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University (from 1941–1986) and one of the greatest scholars of the 20th Century, provides insight into “forces” like those described in Text #5.
Rav Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (pages 102-3)
When God engraved and carved out the world, he did not entirely eradicate the chaos and the void, the deep, the darkness, from the domain of his creation. Rather, he separated the complete, perfect existence from the forces of negation, confusion and turmoil and set up cosmic boundaries, eternal laws to keep them apart. Now Judaism affirms the principle of creation out of absolute nothingness. Therefore, the chaos and the void, the deep, the darkness, the relative nothingness must all have been fashioned by the Almighty before the creation of the orderly, beautiful, majestic world.
...However, the forces of relative nothingness at times exceed their bounds. They wish to burst forth out of the chains of obedience that the Almighty imposed upon them and seek to plunge the earth back into the chaos and the void. It is only the law that holds them back and bars the path before them.
God created many primal forces, like the force of the ocean. Wherever there’s creativity, even holiness, there are forces that might not quite be controlled. Jewish laws and protocols can help us to establish and maintain boundaries. Law can help us create a civil, even holy, society.
Rabbi Soloveitchik shows that laws help us contain the forces within ourselves. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz goes a step further, noting that laws do not exist simply to quell or quash the forces of human nature, but instead leave room within the constraints of laws for those forces to be beneficial. One of the leading scholars of this century, Rabbi Steinsaltz is best known for his commentary on the entire Talmud and for his work on Jewish mysticism. Here, he writes about the challenges of acknowledging beauty:
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. “The Woman’s Role.” Teshuvah.
Tsni’ut (modesty of dress) does not mean monasticism. It does not require that a woman make herself ugly, nor does it presume lack of beauty to be a virtue...[We] sometimes misunderstand the verse “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a God-fearing woman shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30) as a manifesto against pleasantness of appearance, or at least against the effort to look good. Beauty and grace are “in vain” in the sense that they are transient things, and there is more to life than the preoccupation with them. But inherently they are not bad...Beauty is a gift of God, and tsni’ut should not be understood as a denial of it. Rather it is a way of showing special appreciation for this gift as something precious and delicate that is not to be wasted by being paraded in the public eye.
Do the mirrors have a place in the Mishkan? We could be led to think that beauty, desire and sexuality are good in our homes, but still inappropriate in the Mishkan. We think of the Mishkan as a place where we strive to be above any distraction and just focus on God. We may believe that physical impulses should remain outside the realm of connecting to God. Yet, Rashi points out that God does not see it that way. For God, sexuality is an important part of our lives and therefore is not to be banned from our religious selves. Sexuality can represent the sanctified life force of Judaism — for example, in the form of the persistence of Jewish women who used their sexuality to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people — does indeed belong in the Mishkan.
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