Love for another, expressed in the highest form by love for one’s beloved, is the greatest manifestation of sanctity.
The Sanctuary and all of its furnishings are described in exquisite detail in this week’s Torah portion with one exception: the ki’ur, the large wash basin in which the priests sanctified themselves by washing their hands and feet prior to each Divine service.
Virtually all the other items in the Sanctuary are given exact measurements, but here the Torah speaks only in general terms. What makes the wash basin unique? What message is the Torah conveying in highlighting its uniqueness?
For an answer, we turn to the verse that states that the basin was made of the “mirrors of the service women” [Exodus 38:8]. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (19th century Germany), the phrase ba-marot ha-tzovot (mirrors of the service women) suggests that the copper mirrors were not melted down at all, but that the wash basin was “… fitted together almost without any alteration at all, so that it would be recognizable that the basin consisted of mirrors.”
Of all contributions to the Sanctuary, why should the mirrors retain their unique identity? Does it not seem curious that the very symbol of vanity would find a new incarnation as a central piece inside the Sanctuary? Indeed, without first stopping at the basin to wash their hands and feet, the priests could not begin the Temple service. How could such “vanities” become such a significant aspect of our Sanctuary?
According to Rashi, the inclusion of the women’s mirrors inside the Sanctuary is really the story of a religious metamorphosis; not the rejection of the physical, but rather the sanctification of the physical.
Rashi cites our sages, who taught that when the Israelite women brought a gift offering of the actual mirrors, they were initially rejected by Moses because they were made for the evil instinct. But God said to Moses: “Accept them; these are more beloved to me than anything else. Through these mirrors, the women established many legions in Egypt.” (A play on the word tzovot, translated as “service women,” but which literally means “legions,” and is a reference to the multitudes of children whom the women conceived and birthed.)
Rashi continues: “When the husbands would come home exhausted from backbreaking work, their wives would bring them food and drink. And they would take the mirrors and would appear together with their husbands in the reflection of the mirror. Thus they would entice their husbands (in order to) become pregnant.”
The mirrors thus represent the women’s unswerving faith in their people’s future, which is all the more impressive given that at that time, the Israelites were being enslaved and their male babies thrown into the Nile during the Egyptian subjugation.
Love for another, expressed in the highest form by love for one’s beloved, is the greatest manifestation of sanctity, and it is precisely this attraction that has the power to secure our Jewish eternity. Thus, the Sanctuary is sanctified by the mirrors of the women in Egypt, who taught, by their example, how to turn the most physical human drive into the highest act of Divine service.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.