Smoke and Mirrors
Exodus exits this week, mission accomplished: the Hebrew Nation is born and on its way home. The book ends with the last moments of preparation for cutting the ribbon – activation of the brand new sanctuary to the Deity who delivered deliverance. Poetically, the saga that started with slaves building bricks of bitterness concludes with a community of artisans erecting a home for God. Another bookend motif of the birth-myth of the Hebrews is the profound, but underplayed role of the women. In this weekly double Torah Episode ‘Vakhel Pekudei’ – lost in the lists of generous contributions to the tabernacle, hides a word – and hides a story about survival, sexual arousal, and feminine intelligence – hinting at the erotic and mystical dimensions of the sacred.
It all begins innocently enough, when it was time for the construction of the Sacred Sink – a washing station for the tabernacle employees – the Levites. This is the only plumbing device featured in the plans for the mishkan, and the construction called for brass or copper, but the source of this donated metal proved to be a source of some contention.
Exodus chapter 38:8
And he made the laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (JPS)
Who are these women and what are they doing at the tent’s threshold and what’s with the mirrors? The Hebrew ‘ b’marot hatzov’ot’ does not explicitly mention women, but the verse identifies the keepers of the mirrors as ‘feminine’ and ‘assembled’ leading to multiple translations: “mirrors of the women who assembled,” ” mirrors of the ministering women that ministered at the door of the tent of meeting.” ” Women who performed tasks,” “women who served at the entrance,” “mirrors of the women-work-force” or ‘ crowds of women who crowded before the entrance of the tent of meeting.
The Pseudo Jonathan delivers a curious version – covering up a bigger story:
‘And he made the brazen Laver, and its foundation of brass, from the brazen mirrors of the pious women, who, at the season, came to pray at the door of the tabernacle of appointment, standing with their oblations, giving thanks and confession, and returning to their husbands, the mothers of righteous children, who had been purified from the uncleanness of their blood.’
Brazen mirrors?? What this translation alludes to is a lesser known legend, quoted by Rashi – tracing the mirrors all the way back to Egypt, where they served as sex toys – raising the oppressed and repressed Hebraic libido and bumping up the population surveys:
‘When their husbands were weary from the hard labor, they would bring them food and drink, give them to eat and take the mirrors. Each one would look into the mirror together with her husband and tease him with words saying: “I am more beautiful than you.” In the course of this they would arouse their husbands’ desire and copulate.’
Moses, according to the legend, did not want those ‘brazen mirrors’ in his new tent, but the Holy One, intervened, instructing the inclusion of these sacred objects of vanity in the very place where bodies would be sanctified for divine service.
The Hebrew word for ‘mirror’ is very similar ‘mar-aa’ and is also related to the Hebrew word for ‘vision’. Thus, as the second book of Moses ends, amid smoke and mirrors, the visionaries, midwives, artists and freed slaves join to tell the hopeful tale of freedom over oppression – political, sexual, religious and aesthetic. Just in time for Passover.
Next time you wash your hands in your bathroom sink, ponder, where in your personal sanctuary is the erotic elevated into the sacred?