As we prepare to leave the Book of Shemot behind, we read one last time concerning the construction of the Mishkan. Parashat Pekudei opens with a tally of the precious materials and especially metals sincerely and generously donated by Bnei Yisrael towards its construction. The Parasha goes on to detail the preparation of the Priestly garments in exact accordance with the injunctions presented in Parashat Tetzaveh, much as last week's Parashat VaYakhel recounted the construction of the building components and vessels that had been first presented in Parashat Teruma. The Torah provides no account of the actual design process that Bezalel and his cohorts employed in order to translate oral and textual directives into the concrete reality of the building and its furniture. Nor do we have any indication of the difficulties involved in carrying out the work, of the moments of dejection and elation that must have infused the effort, as they do every worthwhile undertaking of art or craftsmanship. These feelings are passed over in silence, perhaps too intimate and heartfelt to be broadcast to the masses, perhaps too personal to be included in a narrative that aims to describe a national undertaking. No doubt after much exertion and hard work, though, the climactic moment arrives, as the completed elements of the edifice as well as all of its vessels, are brought before Moshe for his approval. Moshe finds that everything has been done exactly as God had commanded, and he extends his blessings to the dedicated artisans and to the people of Israel.
The Missing Laver
"These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, that were counted by Moshe, for the service of the Levites under the authority of Itamar son of Aharon the Cohen. Bezalel son of Uri and grandson of Hur of the tribe of Yehuda fashioned everything that God had commanded to Moshe. Assisting him in his work was Oholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, a designer and craftsman, an embroiderer of sky-blue, purple, crimson and white linen" (Shemot 38:21-23). The Torah goes on to detail the exact amounts of gold, silver and bronze that were donated by the people of Israel, and enumerates the specific elements of the Mishkan that were prepared from these materials. Thus, the one hundred talents of silver collected from the people's half-shekel contributions were used to fashion the one hundred base sockets into which the wallboards of the Mishkan and the supporting columns of the curtain were inserted. The remaining 1775 shekels of silver were utilized to prepare the curtain hooks and capitals of the courtyard columns. As for the bronze, the Parasha indicates that the 70 talents and 2400 shekels were utilized to make the base sockets of the entrance columns, the bronze altar and its decorative screen as well as all of its utensils. Additionally, the bronze was used to fashion the base sockets of the Mishkan's enclosure and its entrance, as well as the securing pegs of the curtains.
Curiously absent from the list of prominent bronze vessels is the laver or washstand ('Kiyor') first mentioned in Parashat Ki Tisa: "God spoke to Moshe saying: 'You shall make a bronze laver and base for washing, and shall place it between the Tent of Meeting and the (bronze) altar and fill it with water. Aharon and his sons shall wash their hands and feet from it. Before entering the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water and not die, also before approaching the altar to serve, to present an offering by fire to God. They shall wash their hands and feet and not die, for this decree is an eternal one for Aharon and his descendents'" (Shemot 30:17-21). Why is the kiyor missing from the list of bronze vessels fashioned from the peoples' contributions? The question is made more pronounced by the fact that in Parashat Teruma where the Mishkan and its vessels are first spelled out, the kiyor is again conspicuous by its absence. We would certainly have expected that the 'kiyor' be mentioned in Parashat Teruma in the lengthy passage first describing the vessels of the Mishkan, but for some reason it is isolated from the other items and delineated separately in Parashat Ki Tisa.
The description of the construction of the Mishkan in Parashat Teruma is clearly hierarchical, for it speaks in descending order of the building's most important vessels (ark, table, menora, altar etc.) and only then goes on to explicate the building proper that is to house the items. The natural place to introduce the kiyor is in between the two, for on the one hand it too is a vessel, but on the other hand it stands in the enclosure. This is, in fact, where the kiyor is textually located in Parashat VaYakhel, as the Torah tells the story of the construction. To sum up, then, the 'kiyor' apparently stands alone twice, for in this week's Parasha it is again absent from the list of vessels fashioned from the collected bronze.
Three Approaches: 1) Rashi
The classic commentaries explain the discrepancy by referring to the verse in Parashat VaYakhel. There, in chapters 37 and 38, the Torah narrates all of the vessels that Bezalel fashioned, namely the ark, the table, the menora, the golden altar for incense, and the bronze altar of sacrifice. The last vessel mentioned in the list is the 'kiyor': "He made the kiyor and its base out of bronze, using the mirrors of the women who stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 38:8). In other words, the kiyor, unlike any of the other vessels, was fashioned from a unique contribution that was kept completely separate from the rest of the bronze collected to make the sacrificial altar, its utensils, or the socket/peg elements. Therefore, it is not mentioned in Parashat Pekudei among all of the other bronze implements, nor is it included in the list of vessels first delineated in Parashat Teruma.
Textually, we now understand why the kiyor is portrayed as a distinct item, for the bronze from which it was fashioned was not reckoned among all of the other bronze but rather derived from a special source. Conceptually, though, it remains unclear why such a freestanding contribution was necessary and how it related to this vessel in particular. Rashi (11th century, France) attempts to explain by referring to a graphic and poignant Midrash Tanchuma: "the Jewish women had mirrors in their possession that they used to beautify themselves, and they were prepared to part even with them for the sake of contributing towards the building of the Mishkan. Moshe wanted to reject such a donation, for the mirrors were instruments of the Evil Inclination. God, however, told him: 'accept them, they are more precious to Me than anything else, for by them the women brought forth multitudes of offspring in Egypt.' When their husbands would go out to the fields to perform their backbreaking toil, the women would bring them food and drink and feed them. They with their husbands would look in their mirrors, and arouse their husbands with loving words, in order to encourage them to have relations…" (Rashi Shemot 38:8).
In this unusual passage, the Midrash describes the hopelessness and dejection that infected our ancestors in Egypt. Broken by ceaseless and unbearable toil, they gave up on a future, and were unable to see any hope for better days. Under such circumstances, the notion of having children must have seemed fruitless and futile, for why should children be brought into a world of cruelty, oppression, and brutal enslavement? The women of Israel, however, possessed a longer vision. They understood that to cease having children meant to concede defeat, to surrender to Pharaoh's worldview that countenanced inequity, malevolence and the unjust domination of man by his fellow. They, and not the men, could still dare to imagine that the Jewish people would survive, and would one day emerge from the nightmare of Egypt to take their rightful place in the world as champions of God's moral law.
Their mirrors, initially derided by Moshe as instruments of vanity and self-beautification, were accepted by God Himself as the most meaningful contribution of all, for those instruments of 'vision' had helped secure the future of the Jewish people. There is a legitimate and important place, the Midrash seems to suggest, for beauty and attention to one's appearance, for these things as well can be used in the service of God. Rashi's interpretation explains why the women's contribution was specially designated and set aside, but does not address why the laver in particular should have been fashioned from this bronze.
2) Ibn Ezra
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) offers a diametrically opposing view concerning these mirrors: "It is the practice of all women to beautify themselves and to gaze at their countenance every morning in mirrors of bronze and glass, in order to arrange their glorious bangs… There were in Israel women who were servants of God and withdrew from the desires of this world. They therefore offered their mirrors as a contribution towards the building of the Mishkan for they had no further need to beautify themselves. Rather, they would gather daily at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to pray and to hear the words of the mitzvot. This is the meaning of the phrase "the women who gathered in multitudes at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (38:8), for there were many. The Torah does not tell us the amount of bronze used to make the kiyor, for it was a direct function of the number of mirrors offered" (R. A. Ibn Ezra, 'Long Commentary' 38:8).
In words that almost seem to describe a sort of monastic tradition, Ibn Ezra explains that the mirrors were donated not as an expression of essential and legitimate desire, but rather as an articulation of the rejection of those values. These women, it seems, represent the tendency in pietistic religious faith to spurn attention to physicality and materialism in order to devote oneself more completely to spiritual ideals and to forging a more intense relationship with God. The mirrors, the 'idols' of self-glorification, are therefore surrendered to the service of God and become instead instruments for His service. The ritual washing of the hands and feet, instruments of the body and the means by which it realizes many of its physical drives, is to be performed from a vessel cast from the mirrors that symbolize the transition from materiality to spirituality. Ibn Ezra succeeds in explaining why the mirrors were used to fashion the kiyor, but his words leave us with the larger paradox of attempting to incorporate his view into a corpus of tradition that for the most part articulates an ideal of 'sanctifying' physicality rather than rejecting it.
We will conclude with the words of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who introduces a detail that constitutes a critical element in understanding the significance of the kiyor: "the straightforward explanation is that the kiyor and its base were fashioned from the mirrors generously offered by the multitude of women who presented themselves at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The bronze of the mirrors was of exceptional quality, highly polished and beautiful, and therefore it was designated for this vessel in particular…" (Ramban 38:8). The Ramban explains that the Torah does not mention the source of the kiyor's bronze without good reason. The bronze used to fashion the mirror surface must possess a high degree of luster and a correspondingly low degree of material imperfection and metallurgical impurity. This implies that the kiyor itself fashioned from these mirrors was also a lustrous and highly polished object.
We have already noted how the kiyor was placed in the enclosure at the entrance to the Mishkan. In other words, the kiyor is placed at the threshold between the mundane and the holy. The world outside the Mishkan, though meaningful and full of natural beauty, must be left behind as one enters the precincts of God's house. Not only is this indicated geographically by the arrangement of the Mishkan's building elements, but also conceptually by the placement of the kiyor at the point of transition. At the moment before entering the confines of the Mishkan, the Cohen must first wash his hands and feet, engaging in an act of sanctification that bespeaks the preparation necessary to engage in His service.
The Polished Laver and its Reflection
Significantly, though, that ritual washing is effected through the instrument of the kiyor, a burnished and gleaming vessel that stands as a sentinel in the Mishkan's courtyard. In other words, as the Cohen is about to sanctify his hands and feet he is confronted by a reflection, not of the world around, but of himself. Like the proverbial mirrors from which it was fashioned, the kiyor also provides the Cohen with the opportunity to view his own image. This is not for the sake of self-beautification and vainglory, but rather to impress upon him the need for self-examination. About to embark upon the performance of the service, he must bear in mind that its efficacy is a direct function of his sincerity. Rituals divorced from the more profound meanings that they are meant to foster become hollow and empty acts.
In the pagan conception of serving the gods, the rituals themselves become the vehicles for securing their bounty or averting their wrath. The recitation of formulas and the performance by rote of ceremonial acts is, in the pagan view, enough. It is just that sort of shallow and superficial spirituality that the kiyor comes to dispel. Not by formal and institutionalized acts alone does one approach the Deity, but rather through the heartfelt desire to transform one's self. Confronted by his own reflection as he prepares to enter the House, unable to avoid the glaring image of his own being and who he is, the Cohen is to internalize the idea that it is only through his spiritual transformation that his service will gain acceptance. Empty words and vacuous rituals have no place in the House of the God of Israel. We, who aspire to follow the example of the Cohen, must also 'gaze in the mirror' as we attempt to forge our relationship with God, for to do less is to engage in tragic self-duplicity. Only by recognizing our true selves and who we are, can we aspire to higher spiritual achievements.