“Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who’s the fairest of them all?”
So it was asked every day by the Wicked Queen of “Snow White.” And so, it turns out, it was asked by the women of ancient Israel. These women possessed mirrors of highly polished copper, and they would look into them when they made themselves up. We know this from a rabbinic tradition about this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel. Because fresh resources are scarce in the wilderness, the Tabernacle was constructed primarily out of recycled goods: its precious stones and metals from jewelry, its curtains from fabrics already owned by the people of Israel. So generous were the people, the Torah reports, that Moses had to command them to stop bringing their goods. The artisans used mirrors donated by the women to construct the washstand of burnished copper that stood before the priest in the center of the sanctuary.
A midrash relates that when Moses saw these mirrors, he did not want to accept them. He said, “This is something that helps the Evil Inclination (that basest part of human nature, often linked to lust). These women make themselves up and then the men are led to sin! They may not be used for a holy purpose.” But God said to Moses, “Accept them. These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else that was brought.”
To understand why is to understand our amazing power to transform the profane into the sacred. A mirror is, in fact, a fine reflection of just this point. We can use this simple tool to accomplish good or ill. We can use it to harm or to help. A mirror can be used in such a way that justifies Moses’ worst fear: as an instrument of vanity. Remember the myth of Narcissus, who stares at his own reflection forever as his body wastes away. In the words of Ovid: he “fell in love with that unbodied hope, and found a substance in what was only shadow.” Mirrors can be used to deflect and deceive: “house of mirrors,” “smoke and mirrors.” Some mirrors distort reality and convince us we are fatter, thinner, taller or shorter than we are. Mirrors can fool you into thinking a room is twice its real size. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. But mirrors can serve beautiful, helpful, and holy purposes as well: in kaleidoscopes, telescopes, and periscopes; in cameras, solar power generators, and lasers; in flashlights and headlights. Mirrors are essential to safe driving, safe shaving, and safe dentistry. When used to catch the sun to signal for help, mirrors can save lives. You see, there’s nothing inherent about the mirror that makes it good or bad: it’s how we use it.
That’s what God recognized in demanding that Moses accept the mirrors from the women. In the next few moments, I’d like to share with you some midrash that relates a few different sacred ends toward which these mirrors were used. All of these traditions are compiled and recorded by the Me’am Lo’ez, a monumental early eighteenth-century Ladino commentary on the Torah begun by Rabbi Ya'akov Culi of Constantinople.
“These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else that was brought.” Why? Midrash offers four reasons. (1) The mirrors were used to increase harmony in the household and build up the people of Israel. (2) The mirrors were used to help the women concentrate on the study of Torah. (3) The mirrors were used to bring reverence and decorum into the ancient house of worship. And (4) The mirrors were used to not for vanity, but for modesty and self-reflection.
The first midrash goes back to the time of enslavement in Egypt. While their husbands were out working with mortar and bricks, these women would bring them food. Each one would look at herself along with her husband. This would arouse their desire. Well, one thing would lead to another, and nine months later, the women would give birth. “You see,” God told Moses, “these women did a holy deed through these mirrors. They wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of having children, causing many Israelites to come into the world.” As a result, the righteous women in Egypt had many children and thereby caused a critical mass of faithful Israelites to arise and leave during the Exodus! Even the Torah’s word for mirrors, mar’ot ha-tzova’ot, is linked to the word tzeva’ot, which means “troops,” referring to the ranks of Israelites who went free.
A second midrash concludes that these mirrors were not used for the women to make themselves up. A disclaimer: at first, this tradition appears to apologize for the gender-bias present in classical Judaism; but if you listen closely, you’ll notice that the midrash is actually an early feminist notion. The story goes that the women felt uncomfortable coming to the Tabernacle to pray or to hear words of Torah because they were concerned that the men would be ogling them, distracting the women from the service. To prevent the men from staring, they made these mirrors and reflected the sunlight into the men’s eyes. When the washstand was built out of these mirrors, it reflected everything that was done in the Tabernacle, so that even the women who, according to custom, were seated in the rear gallery, could nevertheless pray and observe the reading of Torah.
A different midrash relates that the mirrors were made for the priest who would come to wash their hands and feet from the washstand. They would look in the mirrors to see if they had any spots or stains on their sacred garments. This enabled them to look their best before they performed any Divine service. From this midrash, Jewish tradition taught that one should look his or her best before coming to services. The Me’am Lo’ez observes: “Some people have a habit of coming to synagogue without an outer garment and without shoes on their feet in summer. This is not proper. Sometimes they place a towel over their shoulders and think that this is as good as wearing an outer garment and shoes. This is obviously not correct…. Some people come to synagogue just as they get out of bed. This shows a lack of respect for God. They do not realize before whom they are going to pray. They do not stop to think that they are going to be standing before the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”
Well, clearly this is an issue for the Me’am Lo’ez; and though I have yet to conduct a religious service in the presence of barefoot towel-wearers, I must register no small measure of discomfort when I see students, adolescent girls in particular, wearing all-too immodest dresses, sitting in the sanctuary of WRT at B'nei Mitzvah services, or adolescent boys wearing sweatpants and baseball caps to Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday nights.
One final midrash. Some say that the mirrors belonged to women who had actually stopped worrying about make-up, appearances, and self-ornamentation. In other words, they donated the mirrors to holy service because they simply did not have a use for them at home anymore.
They gave up their instruments of self-reflection to concentrate on true self-reflection: an evaluation of what mattered most to them and their community. This message we see reflected as well in the Jewish custom of covering mirrors in a house of shiva, so that mourners not face the continual distraction and temptation to stand vainly before our own image when honoring the life of a departed loved one. And so the mirrors left the homes of these noble Israelite women and instead adorned the holiest space in the community, a place, Torah tells us, graced with God’s Presence.
For that is the amazing power we possess: to transform the profane into the sacred. When we progress from vanity to genuine self-evaluation and self-improvement, we transform the profane into the sacred. When we cease using our tools of communication to spread gossip, sleaze, commercialism and instead communicate respect, knowledge, and love, we transform the profane into the sacred. Let today’s grim headlines instill anew the primeval lesson: when we use fire not to power weapons or for reckless entertainment, but to cook food and warm homes, we transform the profane into the sacred.
So may we become mirrors to reflect the Divine Presence that inhabits every sacred space and every sacred moment.
Shabbat Shalom and happy REFLECTING!