Mirror Mirror on the…BASIN?!! By Gevura Davis
People often tell me they enjoy learning the mystical teachings of Judaism, or the ethical precepts, but that too often they find “just the bible” totally boring. Our Sages teach us, however, that the Torah contains all the wisdom one needs, the secrets of the universe, and the guidebook for how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, maximizing our potential in all areas of human development. Each line and each word contain tremendous meaning, and when studied, can teach us deep lessons about psychology, self-help, parenting, and many other areas of life.
In this week’s Torah portion, we continue learning and reviewing the Mishkan, the temporary synagogue and G-d’s dwelling place on earth, while the Jews traveled in the desert. The parshah contains many very detailed explanations of the various parts, and the labor involved in the construction of the Mishkan. That does sound unexciting, so people are sometimes surprised when I tell them it also contains one of the secrets of the Jewish view on physical intimacy.
When Moses is collecting the various parts needed to construct the Mishkan, the women present him with the copper mirrors that they used to beautify themselves while still slaves in Egypt. Their husbands were physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausted from the back-breaking and degrading work imposed by Pharaoh. Understandably, they had lost their interest and desire to be with their wives. Furthermore, the men felt slavery was no way to bring more children into the world. The women, however, had other plans. In a tremendous act of faith, hope, and idealism, they wanted to be with their husbands physically to boost their morale, build their relationships, and also bring more children into the world to maintain a Jewish future, believing deeply that their rescue from slavery was imminent. They used their copper mirrors to doll themselves up, and in essence, seduce their husbands.
Why then would these mirrors be included in the basin for hand washing and purification for the Mishkan, the epitome of holiness and spirituality for the Jewish people? Moses rejects the mirrors at first, saying it isn’t proper to use objects of seduction in a place of ritual purification. However, the great Sage Rashi tells us that G-d himself vetoes Moses’s decision and says, “Accept the mirrors from the women for they are more dear to me than anything else!” There is a lot to say on this dramatic section of the parshah, but I want to focus on one specific aspect: what this teaches us about the value of intimacy between two soul mates and how we should view the act itself.
In modern culture, most of us find ourselves confused about sexuality, trapped with the misunderstandings of two predominant world views that can erroneously and subconsciously make us think it is either bad, or just a physical act devoid of spirituality. Both of these notions are totally at odds with the Jewish view.
On one hand, many world religions teach that sexuality is base and unholy, a worldly pleasure that is generally to be avoided and only used for procreation. This message, I believe, is what sometimes causes people to feel embarrassed or ashamed to fully express themselves or embrace their partner. On the opposite extreme is the pervasive modern view on sexuality that originated in ancient Greece, promoting “free love,” no commitments, no worries, the “if it feels good, go for it” mentality. This message, I believe, is what contributes to the culture of separating love from intimacy and relegating it to a purely physical act, with no deeper emotions.
Judaism, as you might have guessed, has a radically different view. We are taught that intimacy between spouses is one of the holiest and most pleasurable experiences a person can have in this world. However, it has limits. It is meant to be sacred, magical, between husband and wife. To relegate sexuality to a purely physical experience, something that can be done any time with anyone, is to debase the huge potential it contains for a beautiful and holy experience. The Torah views intimacy as the coming together of two souls – in love, respect, giving, and closeness. It is two, beautifully turning into one; and oneness is the ultimate goal of our relationship. It says in Genesis that when husband and wife are connected in the closest possible way, in love and in unity, they delight in one another and bring each other pleasure. There, in that exalted state of oneness, they are indeed “in the image of G-d.” G-d designed the physical world that we should seek to bring one another pleasure. After all, through that oneness, comes new life, the perpetuation of humanity.
In this context, we can understand why those mirrors were so precious to G-d, and why the women understood that they deserved their rightful place in the construction of G-d’s dwelling place. Not in spite of the fact that they were used to beautify themselves, but because of it. All people have the potential to use everything in this world either for good or for bad, for holy or for base purposes. In our daily lives, we, too, should strive to be like the women of that generation. We can emulate their faith that merciful G-d would redeem them – their hope that they would have a brighter future to bring children into, and their wisdom to understand that their mirrors were fitting for the most holy of places, because they were objects used to create love and intimacy between husband and wife.
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth and Family Division of the Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.