Reflections on Choosing Life


By Rabbi Annie Lewis

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

In our Torah portion this week, we read about the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites in the wilderness.

Master artist Betzalel creates the planks and posts, the clasps and sockets, the tapestries and table. He also designs a copper washing basin that the priest will use to clean his hands and feet before entering the Holy of Holies. We are given a curious detail that Betzalel makes this washstand out of the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

Rashi comments on the meaning of the repurposed mirrors. He relays a story of Moses sorting through the gifts the Israelites have donated to the Mishkan. Upon seeing the many mirrors brought by women, Moses becomes angry. He questions how a symbol of vanity like a mirror could be incorporated into a sacred space.

God scolds Moses, telling him that not only are the mirrors holy, they are more beloved in God’s eyes than the other contributions to the Mishkan. This is because the Israelite women, in the midst of their enslavement in Egypt, used the mirrors to awaken their husbands’ desire and to perpetuate life. The mirrors are a reminder of how in their darkest moment our ancestors maintained their sense of agency and kindled the courage to choose life.

In her book Sisters at Sinai, Rabbi Jill Hammer — a contemporary midrashist — tells a different origin story for these mysterious mirrors. She imagines Miriam as a teacher of the women in Egypt. At the end of a grueling day, Miriam brings the women together to study. She invites them to hold up their mirrors to themselves and to one another, and reminds them that they are each made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Holy One.

When the Israelites are dehumanized by their Egyptian taskmasters, they can be mirrors for one another, with the power to remind each other that they are loved, that they are full of divine sparks.

When the women donate their mirrors to the making of the Mishkan, it is their hope that as the priests gaze into the shiny surface of the laver and wash their hands and feet, they will remember the humanity and godliness of themselves and the community they serve. As the priests venture into the deepest chambers of the Mishkan to meet the divine presence, the women pray that their leaders will know their resilience and responsibility.

This season, as I encounter the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, I find myself longing for sanctuary. I am aware of how very fragile our lives are, how easily the truth is discarded that human beings are made in the image of God.

It has been one year since the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized. It has been three weeks since 17 students and teachers were murdered in Parkland, Fla., in their school that was meant to be a sanctuary for learning. Each day, in our neighborhoods, immigrants and dreamers fear deportation, seeking sanctuary in the only country that has ever been their home.

Soon, ice and wind will give way to spring. We’ll gather around seder tables, sharing stories of liberation. Like our ancient priests, we’ll ritually wash our hands. May we be mirrors for one another and the wider world, reflecting the holiness of each human being, making this earth a life-giving sanctuary where God and humanity may dwell.

Rabbi Annie Lewis is the director of rabbinic formation at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here