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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Pekudei 5763

This week’s parsha, Pekudei, is the last in the book of Shemot (Exodus). The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle or Sanctuary) is finally completed in this week’s Torah reading.

What is this Mishkan that the Torah has been describing in excruciatingly precise detail for the last five weeks? In essence, the Mishkan was an elaborately constructed, portable tent that was reassembled wherever the Jewish people settled during their years of wandering. In a sense, the Mishkan was the first “Jewish Community Center”. It unified the people, sheltered the luchot (Tablets of the 10 Commandments) and was the place from which G-d often spoke to Moshe.

Although it may not seem immediately obvious, each of the myriad details of the construction of the Mishkan offers us a lesson relevant to living a Jewish life. Let’s focus on just one.

If you had just finished renovating your home, it would be natural to want to know how each dollar was spent. Pekudei opens with Moshe offering an incredibly detailed accounting of how all the precious metals that the Jews generously donated to the construction of the Mishkan were actually used. Even though Moshe’s accounting was comprehensive, down to each silver socket and bronze peg, the kiyyor (water basin) is inexplicably not mentioned in this accounting.

Abravanel (15th century) clarifies the reason why the kiyyor is not mentioned here. The raw materials for its construction came from a distinctive source – the mirrors of the women.

What lesson can be learned from the fact that the women donated their mirrors to the Mishkan? Ibn Ezra (12th century) concludes that the women’s willingness to hand over their mirrors demonstrated that they had rejected personal vanity. However, Rashi (11th century) offers us a more potent lesson.

Jewish tradition teaches that human sexuality can be used to elevate or to demean. On the one hand, it has the potential to create new human life. Perhaps more significantly, it has the potential to unite a man and a woman in the most profound way humanly possible. Just as it has a very high spiritual potential, Judaism recognizes that human sexuality has the equal and opposite potential to be superficial and degrading.

When the women originally offered their mirrors, Moshe rejected the offering. He felt that the mirrors the women had used to make themselves sexually attractive to their husbands were tainted by lustfulness and therefore not sufficiently holy to be included in the Mishkan. To Moshe, the women’s mirrors symbolized the shallow side of sexuality.

The significance of the women’s donation, which wasn’t obvious to Moshe, is reinforced for us by Nechama Leibowitz (20th century) who teaches, “[s]ymbolically the mirrors do not evoke the triviality and vanity of their conventional use but the survivalist, lifegiving purpose that they served.”

Through their skillful use of these mirrors, the women were able to draw their husbands to them. In so doing, the women continued getting pregnant and giving birth in Egypt long after the men were so disheartened that they no longer wanted more children. Is it unwise to actively pursue having children while enslaved? G-d assures Moshe, and us by extension, that the women acted with pure and holy intention.

The women’s fortitude, to continue family life under slavery, is acknowledged and rewarded by G-d when G-d declares to Moshe, “Accept! For these are dearer to Me than everything else.”

The basin was used in the Mishkan for ritual purification, similar to the way traditional Jews ritually wash their hands before eating bread. By instructing Moshe to use the mirrors to make the basin and its stand, G-d links the purity of the women’s motivations with the purity achieved through the use of the basin made from their mirrors.

Finally, mirrors symbolize a spiritual quality that is unique to women. The essence of a mirror is to reflect an image. Tzippora Heller, an Israeli Torah teacher who occasionally lectures in Baltimore, teaches that women excel in the distinctive spiritual capacity called binah, which is the ability to perceive the inner essence of a person or a situation and to reflect it back.

The donated mirrors were symbolic of the women themselves – heroic, faithful and possessing penetrating spiritual insight. Through studying their donation, we are able to identify Jewish qualities that we should all aspire to.

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