Just when we think we know what others are thinking, we have to remind ourselves that all we really know is what we’re thinking.
– Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, Facebook Status, October 14, 2012
The women were in trouble.
Things had started out smoothly. It was the women who had first brought out materials for the Mishkan, while their husbands trudged behind them.<1> In fact, it was the women’s combination of giving to the Mishkan but not to the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf) which merited them their own chag (holiday) of exemption from work –Rosh Chodesh.<2>
When the women offered their mirrors (mar’ot hatzov’ot), however, Moshe blew up. According to a midrash, he even ordered the men to take sticks and hit the women! “What are these mirrors used for!” he thundered.<3> Rashi explains that Moshe assumed that mirrors are made for the yetzer hara (evil inclination), in that women use them to make themselves more attractive in order to tempt men into sexual relations. Hence his backlash: how could anyone dare think that such items could be used for the holy Mishkan?<4> Moshe did not realize that “the physical, sensual side of human beings is not merely excluded from the sphere which is to be sanctified by the Mikdash, but that it is the first and most essential object of this sanctification.”<5>
Fortunately, Moshe was corrected – by none other than Hashem. The midrash relates His words: “Moshe! You despise these? (Rashi interjects here: These are more precious to me than anything else!) It was these mirrors which raised up all the multitudes (tz’va’ot) in Egypt! Take them and make them into the kiyor (sink) and its stand, with which the kohanim can be mekadesh (sanctify) their hands and feet.”<6> Hashem was telling Moshe that not only could the mirrors be used for a mitzvah, but the women had already done so – for p’ru ur’vu (procreation). The women’s actions proved their point and vindicated them.
Why, of all kelim for the Mishkan, did Hashem choose the kiyor to be made up of the mirrors? The answer to this question relates to the other function of the kiyor – verifying the guilt or innocence of a sotah (woman accused of adultery). Anothermidrash says that Hashem testified to the women’s fidelity in Egypt and told Moshe, “From these mirrors which were not used for immorality, make the kiyor; with it, their daughters will be tested to see if they are as pure as their mothers.”<7>
We can better understand the connection between the mirrors and the kiyor by examining a unifying theme: appearance. First, Moshe’s harsh judgment was based on appearance – it looked as if the mirrors were primarily used for the yetzer hara. But as Hashem told Shmuel, “A person sees the appearance, while Hashem sees into the heart.”<8> Hashem had to inform Moshe that his impression was diametrically opposed to the truth. It was, in fact, the women’s fidelity to which the mirrors attested.
The irony here is that the very essence of a mirror is appearance. The word for it in Biblical Hebrew (mar’ah) is spelled the same as the word for appearance (mar’eh). A mirror – like water, which was in the kiyor – seems to reflect reality, but is only an illusion. What it shows is only a surface image. Just as a mirror does not reflect reality, so too any appearance is not necessarily reality and we cannot judge by it. Therefore, Moshe’s judging the mirrors by their appearance was a contradiction in terms.
Fortunately, Moshe learned his lesson. The next time a group of observant women approached him with a request for halakhic innovation, his response was different. When the daughters of Tz’lofchad asked to inherit their father’s land, Moshe did not question their motives and assume that these women must have been trying to undermine the Torah. Instead, he turned to Hashem, Who answered, “The daughters of Tz’lofchad speak correctly.”<9> By not judging by appearances, but leaving it up to Hashem, Moshe successfully avoided conflict.
The second place we find the appearance theme is in the function of the kiyor for thekohanim – and Moshe as well – to wash their hands and feet.<10> Since the kiyor was made of mirrors, the kohanim would see themselves. The Toldot Yaakov Yosef suggests that this would remind them to have anavah (humility) when offering up the korbanot(sacrifices). Perhaps he means that by being confronted with their own image – how others perceived them – the kohanim would remember not to judge by appearance those people bringing the korbanot. Instead of seeing them as horrible sinners, thekohanim would humbly remember that Hashem alone knows the inner truth, and He might even consider them the greater sinners.<11>
Third, the other function of the kiyor (as stated above) was to test a sotah.<12> Even though nobody could possibly know until after the test whether or not she was innocent of adultery, it was all too easy for onlookers to judge her in the courtrooms of their minds. Accordingly, the mirrors of the kiyor could remind everyone that the sotahwas accused because of appearance only – she was seen in a possibly compromising situation – and Hashem alone was qualified to judge her.
We can learn from the mirrors that were turned into the kiyor not to judge other people by appearances. It is far better to turn a mirror on ourselves, to examine our own shortcomings, and thus turn the mirror into an instrument of change.
- Ramban on Sh’mot35:22.
- Da’at Zekenim MiBa’alei HaTosafot on Sh’mot35:22, explaining Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 45.
- Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, #9.
- Rashi on Sh’mot38:8, s.v. b’mar’ot hatzov’ot. For more on how the women used the mirrors to alter the focus of the men’s vision, see Rabbanit Chana Henkin, “Vayakhel – Pikudei.” http://web.archive.org/web/20030309092454/http://www.nishmat.net/article.php/id/102
- Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on Sh’mot38:8.
- See note 3 above.
- Bamidbar Rabba9:14.
- Sh’muel Alef 16:7.
- InParashat Ki Tisa (where Hashem first commanded the creation of the kiyor), the Torah mentions Aharon and his sons using the kiyorto wash their hands and feet (Sh’mot30:19); in Parashat Pekudei, it adds Moshe as well (Ibid., 40:31). The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar) on Sh’mot 38:8 discusses the significance of Moshe’s using the kiyor.
- Rav Yaakov Yosef HaKohen of Polnoye (1710–1784), Toldot Yaakov Yosefon Pekudei, #3, s.v. uvazeh yuvan. In the 1973 Jerusalemedition, it’s on page 259.
- For more on the significance of using the mirror-made kiyorto test a sotah, see:
Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, “The Mirrors are the Message,” TorahWeb, Vayakhel 2002. http://www.torahweb.org/torah/2002/parsha/rneu_vayakhel.html
Rabbi Shimon Felix, “Sacred Relationships,” The Bronfman Youth Fellowships, Vayakhel 1992. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/vayakhel_bronfman.htm
Rabbi Aaron Weiss, “The Two Tasks of the Kior.” http://web.archive.org/web/20020929145825/http://www.shaalvim.org/archives2/vayakhel5757.html