Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mirror, mirror on the laver / Parshat Vayakhel

The ritual of washing our hands before eating bread derives from the requirement of the kohanim (priests) who washed their hands and feet prior to service in the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis transferred this ritual from the sacred precinct into the home, the mikdash m’at (small sanctuary) so we would all be “priests” and could all participate.

This week’s parashah, Vayakhel (which we read coupled with Pekudei) continues the description of the furnishings and rituals of the Tabernacle. Among these was the laver, where the kohanim washed their hands and feet. The laver stood between the altar and the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting).
He made the laver of copper and its pedestal of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks [tzav’u] at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
What are these mirrors and what did the women do that was so noteworthy?

Rashi, drawing on Sotah 11b, comments:
The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors that they would look into when they would beautify themselves. Even these they did not withhold from bringing to contribute to the Mishkan. But Moses rejected them because they were made for [accomplishing acts of] the evil inclination. The Holy One, blessed be God, said [to Moses]: “Accept [the mirrors] because these are the dearest to Me of all, for by means of them, the women established many legions [tz’vaot rabot] in Egypt.” When their husbands would be exhausted by the oppressive work, they would go and bring them food and drink and feed them. Then they would take the mirrors, and each would view herself with her husband in the mirror and entice him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” By these means, they would bring their husbands to desire and would have sexual relations with them, and conceive and give birth there, as it is said, Under the apple tree I aroused you (Song of Songs 8:5).
Moses is concerned that the mirrors are used only for vanity, and vanity leads to lewdness and immortality. Moses sees them as instruments of the Yetzer Ra (the evil inclination) and thereby unsuitable for the purifying laver. But God sees the situation differently: when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, the women used the mirrors to entice their exhausted husbands into having sexual relations with them so that children would be born and the people would survive. They saved the Jewish people through flirtation, love, tender care paid to their husbands, and a commitment to bringing forth another generation. Given all that negativity and judgmentalism that surrounds sexuality in our society, this is a wonderfully positive and affirming midrash. It tells us that sexuality that leads to stable, loving relationships and households is desirable and praiseworthy. This speaks to the current controversy surrounding same-sex marriages.

Yoma 69b fancifully recounts that on one occasion, people captured the Yetzer Ra and imprisoned it in a sealed lead container, hoping to rid the world of evil.
They imprisoned him for three days, then looked throughout the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find one. They said: What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? They world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant halves in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go. It helped insofar as he no longer lures men against relatives. (Yoma 69b)
The midrash Rashi cites, as well as the one from Yoma remind us that the Yetzer Ra is an urge deriving from our natural biological-sexual energy. Certainly there is the possibility of doing much evil, but so too can it be harnessed for positive purposes. The Rabbis understood that that without the energy of the Yetzer Ra, “no man would build a house or marry a wife” and no constructive work would be done. The goal then, is to use sexual energy for good.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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