By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“And he set the laver between the Tent of the Meeting and the altar, and put water there for washing. And Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet…“ (Exodus 40:30–31)
Before the priests would enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar, they were commanded to wash their hands and feet from the laver. Not doing so was a capital offense.
The washing of one’s hands and feet may have been the easiest of all the required rituals, but that didn’t make it any less significant. On the contrary, not only was it the prerequisite for the priest’s presence in the sanctuary, but the washing of the priests has become an essential part of the halachic life of every Jew.
Therefore, it’s interesting that the last physical item connected to the rituals of the sanctuary that the Torah mentions is the washstand, or laver. The portion of Pekudei closes the book of Exodus. Pekudei means “These are the accounts of…” and that’s exactly what the portion does.
And what is the last sanctuary “furnishing” recorded in the Torah? The washstand. True, the enclosure is also mentioned, but the enclosure is not a physical item.
If it’s true that the Torah wants us to pay particular attention to this washstand, then we must reread its description:
“He made the copper laver and its copper base out of the mirrors of the service women [armies of women] who congregated to serve at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)
It is significant that the Torah speaks of the mirrors of the women. After all, a mirror is one of those objects which is, at best, taken for granted as we gaze into it and check for excesses and wrinkles and, at worst, causes us slight embarrassment at our vain concern with physical appearance. Is it not strange that such “vanities” are to be considered worthy of being used by the priests to sanctify their hands?
When the commandment was originally given in Ki Tissa, the Torah did not command the women to donate their copper mirrors. Indeed, Ibn Ezra calls the women’s contribution a victory of spiritual values over physical vanity. The daughters of Israel didn’t need these mirrors anymore; they wanted to serve God by emphasizing good deeds over good looks.
Rashi, in questioning the Midrash Tanĥuma, describing how the women enticed their husbands by means of the mirrors to have sexual relations with them, stresses that one should not be quick to reject the physical — even sexual — aspect of our existence. If anything, Judaism ennobles sex and love within marriage.
When two people become physically united to become partners with God in creating another person, they are engaging in one of the holiest acts a human being can pursue. And if a mirror can help, what finer material is there for the sanctification of the priest’s hands before he performs the divine service?
Moreover, the mirrors signal to God the women’s profound faith in a Jewish future. Imagine Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule. Knowing that his sons would be drowned in the Nile and his daughters forced to live with Egyptian slave-masters, why on earth would any Hebrew want to bring more children into the world?
But thank God for their wives, the Almighty is teaching Moses. The women remembered the divine promises that foretold the ultimate redemption of the people and their entry into the Promised Land. The women urged their husbands not to despair, to believe in a Jewish future. In the midst of torturous persecution, slavery and infanticide, bringing more Jewish children into the world was an act of supreme faith. And the mirrors were the instruments for the expression of that faith.
Yet another lesson lies in the sanctity of the mirrors. The Hebrew word for mirror, marah, has the same letters as mareh, appearance. And seeing our appearance in a mirror does not only emphasize our physical selves. We realize that we are more than that which the mirror reflects. After all, the mirror does not show our inner selves, our memories and aspirations, our dreams and our fears.
Let us ponder: Who commonly came to the sanctuary? People in search of atonement, individuals bringing guilt and sin offerings. Hence, the danger would lie in how easy it was to forget the individual behind the person who arrived with his offering. It was too easy for the priest to make his judgments based upon the single instance when he would see the supplicant with his sacrifice.
One of the important lessons the mirror taught is that people are not how they appear to be on the surface. Just as the priest understood that the face staring back at him in the laver is hardly the total picture — there’s a lot more to us than what stares back in the glass.
And is this not the true message of the women’s gift? After all, the women who beautified themselves for their husbands were an easy target for a cynic. But perhaps the message of the mirrors was the exact opposite: Don’t look at me only as I appear now in the mirror; look at me also as you saw me as a bride, and look at me as the mother of your future children.
Thus we see the central role of the washstand — the faith of the Jewish women despite the fact that their husbands’ spirits were broken, and the importance for the priest to look deep and hard at himself as well as others to ascertain a true and full picture. In the final analysis, our reflection in a mirror is only a small part of who we really are.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.