“The Lesson of the Basin: ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover'”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, opens with a reckoning of all the precious materials that were used in the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The accounting is followed by a description of the manufacture of the various furnishings of the Tabernacle, the command to set up the Tabernacle, and the actual setting up of the Tabernacle. The parasha concludes with the Torah’s depiction of the glory of G-d filling the Tabernacle.

There is an interesting discrepancy that is found in parashat Pekudei, pointed out by the late great bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz. In the opening verses of this week’s parasha, Exodus 38:29, the Torah notes that the total amount of bronze used in the Tabernacle was 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. The very next verses list all the bronze furnishings and implements in the Tabernacle. Not mentioned in this enumeration however is the basin, the kee’yor, and its stand, also made of bronze. Only when all the furnishings of the Tabernacle are mentioned later in summary in Exodus 39:39 is the Basin finally mentioned.

The Torah in Exodus 38:8 states clearly, “Va’ya’as et ha’kee’yor n’cho’shet, v’et ka’noh n’cho’shet, b’mar’ot ha’tzov’ot ah’sher tzav’oo peh’tach ohel moed,” And he [Betzalel] made the basin of bronze and the stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women “who stood in line” at the door of the tent of meeting. The phrase, “mar’ot ha’tzov’ot,” which we’ve interpreted as women standing in line at the door of the tent of meeting, is extremely ambiguous. Ramban states that the women of Israel gathered, like an army, (tzah’vah) at the door of the tent of meeting to present their mirrors as a free will offering to the Mishkan. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch underscores how odd it is that objects of vanity, such as mirrors, were used to build the basin, a vessel designated to effect the consecration of the hands and feet of the priests. The medieval Spanish commentator, R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, explained that, because of their piety, the women of Israel gave away their mirrors, in order to demonstrate they had no need for such objects of vanity.

Professor Leibowitz cites the Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus 38:9 that serves as the basis for Rashi’s comments as well, underscoring the great valor of the Jewish women in Egypt. The Midrash Tanchuma maintains that when Pharaoh enslaved the Jewish men, he decreed that the Jewish men may not sleep at home or have children with their wives. To thwart this decree, the Jewish women went down to the water, caught fish, cooked scrumptious meals, purchased wine, and went out to the fields to give their husbands a decent meal. After they ate, the women teased their husbands, looking into their mirrors saying, “I am more comely than you!” thus arousing their husband’s sexual desires. In this manner, the Hebrews became fruitful and multiplied, which explains why the text states (Exodus 1:7) “Va’tee’mah’lay ha’aretz o’tam,” and the land was filled with them, and (Exodus 1:12) the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied. The Midrash Tanchuma thus claims that it was through these mirrors that the Hebrew women raised their “hosts” (“tz’vaot”) and sustained the Jewish people.

The Midrash concludes that after the men of Israel made their contributions to the Tabernacle, the women were disappointed that there wasn’t much left for them to offer. They therefore brought their precious mirrors and presented them to Moses. Moses, however, viewed the mirrors as objects of vanity and refused to accept them. The Al-mighty firmly corrected Moses, saying, “You look down on these objects? These mirrors after all raised up all the hosts of Egypt. Take the mirrors and make of them a basin and its stand for the priests to purify themselves.” Rashi enhances the Midrashic version, attributing to G-d the words, “Cha’vee’vin ah’lie may’ha’kol,” the [mirrors] are dearer to me than anything else!

Nechama Leibowitz concludes her brilliant and insightful analysis by citing the rabbinic commentary on the phrase found in the Shema prayer, (Deuteronomy 6:5) “B’chol l’vov’eh’cha,” meaning “with all your heart.” The sages question the grammatical structure of the word “l’vov’eh’cha” which literally means hearts–plural. In response, the rabbis assert that one must worship G-d with both hearts–with the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’rah, with both the good impulse and the evil impulse. Seducing their husbands through the use of the mirrors were acts of nobility and heroism. Thus, the “evil” impulse can be used to achieve much good.

Once again, through careful and devoted analysis we see how a slight omission in a text can teach us a most profound lesson for life.

May you be blessed.