".... the women would take out their mirrors and glance into them with their husbands. They would say: “I am more beautiful than you” and the men would reply: “I am more beautiful than you.” In that way they would arose their sexual desires and became fruitful and multiplied. The Holy One, blessed be He, caused them to conceive on the spot."
"...these mirrors allowed Israel to dislodge themselves from Pharoah’s deadly decree by allowing them, after years of slavery to look at things from a different perspective..."
by: Shoshana Cohen
In the midst of the accounting פקודי of materials brought to the Tabernacle in Parshat Pekudei (Ex. 38) there is a very strange verse: (8) He made the basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the myriads (צבאותfemale) who gathered (צבאו) at the entrance entrance to the tent of meeting...(29) The bronze of the offering was seventy talents and two thousand four hundred shekels
The meaning if the word צבאות here is unclear. In general the root צ.ב.א has two related meanings, one is “army” or “service” as in Numbers 1 (where it refers to the actual army) and Numbers 4 where it refers to those in the “army” of God, the Temple service.
If that is the case than this verse would be translated as: “He made a basin of bronze...from the mirrors of the [female] servants [of the Sanctuary] who served at the entrance to the Tent of meeting.” While this would make sense it would also be strange, because we have no evidence of any such women who served in the Temple, as far as we know the Tabernacle and the Temple that follows is an entirely male space, though women may have entered they did not serve.
It is for this reason that Robert Alter in his translation of the passage renders צ.ב.א. according to its other possible, and clearly related meaning, “myriads” or “crowds”: “and he made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”
He explains that this is likely referring to the prominent role women played in the donations to the Mishkan in Ex 35:22.In that case, the “pshat” or simple meaning of the verse may be clear, but we are still left with a few questions, what are these mirrors?
To complicate things even further, people brought all kinds of things to the Tent to be used in the building, the materials were collected and for the most part melted down to create the various vessels required in the Mishkan. Why are these objects singled out? If we think about what a mirror looks like in relation to a basin it also seems like the metal here was not fully melted down, rather it was reworked to create the hollow depth of a basin.
The midrash in Tanhuma Pekudei 9 (an earlier version of which is in Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11) sees these mirrors as the very secrets of redemption. The midrash clarifies that the phrase which refers to the bronze, נחושת התנופה, which technically means the “bronze of the offering (tenufah),” can also refer to the bronze vessels given to a bride, relating the Hebrew tenufah to the Greek nymphe (a way of refering to a bride.) Here the puzzle seems even more strange, why are there bridal accessories in the sanctuary?
Indeed, the midrash relays later, Moses did not want to accept these mirrors as part of the sanctuary, he recommended that the women be beaten for bringing them. God, however explains that it is on account of these mirror that the myriads (צבאות see Ex. 4:4, 12:21) of Israel were brought out from Egypt, and it relays the following story (also analysed beautifully in Aviva Zornberg’s Particulars of Rapture).
You find that while the Israelites were making bricks in Egypt, Pharoah decreed that they were not to sleep at home so that they would not have intercourse with their wives. R. Shimon ben Halafta said: What did the Israelites women do? They would go to the Nile to draw water, and the Holy One, blessed be He would fill their jugs with little fishes/ they would sell some and cook and prepare the fish and buy some wine and then bring it to their husbands in the fields, as it is said: In all manner of service in the field (Ex. 1:14). While the men were eating and drinking the women would take out their mirrors and glance into them with their husbands. They would say: “I am more beautiful than you” and the men would reply: “I am more beautiful than you.” In that way they would arose their sexual desires and became fruitful and multiplied. The Holy One, blessed be He, caused them to conceive on the spot.
Our sages said they bore twins. Others say: Six were formed in a single womb. Others say: twelve were born from one womb. And still other contend six hundred thousand...
It is also written concerning them: And the land filled with them (Exod. 1:7). That is to say, that even while they were suffering hardship, they increased and multiplied, by means of the mirrors in which they preened themselves before their husbands. They aroused their sexual desires despite the arduous labors they performed. They reared all those hosts (or multitudes) that were to depart, as it is said All the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (ibid. 12:41) and also the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their host (ibid. v. 51).
We are shown from the story that these mirrors allowed Israel to dislodge themselves from Pharoah’s deadly decree by allowing them, after years of slavery to look at things from a different perspective. For the men the decree (gezerah from the word “cut” like “cut and dry”) was the end of the story of the Jewish people. Exhausted from their work and the years oppression they seem resolved to have their generation be the last. The women however see things differently, and the role of sight in this story is key. First they see the reality in front of them in a different way, they see a way out of the dark tunnel. This is consistant with a point made by Tikva Frymer-Kensky in an article on Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies. She claims that women characters tend to appear on the scene in the Bible when things are stalled, when the course of Jewish history seems that it cannot move forward. Coming from the outside these women (like the midwives in the Exodus story, or Tamar or Ruth) who have a different perspective, challenge what looks like a fait accompli and move the nation into the next stage.
In this case however, it is not only about seeing things differently, as represented by the mirrors. What the women are able to see at first and what is elusive to the men is themselves. The women bring the mirrors to their husbands and can say “I am more beautiful than you.” This simple act of self affirmation seems to have been impossible for the men to have done prior to this process. Pharoah’s decree and years of bondage have erased the sense of self that is required for a person to be in a relationship, to build a family and to perpetuate their nation. The loss of a sense of self and its tragic effects this has on family structure is commonly documented among slaves, a story powerfully told in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (highly recommended pre-Passoever reading.)
The women, through their mirrors see themselves and allow their husbands to do the same. Only once they have each seen themselves, affirmed their own beauty and worth can that look at each other, their sexual desires reawakened.
We can certainly understand why Moses may not have wanted the mirrors in the Tabernacle - they are essentially erotic toys that “would arose their sexual desires!” While we can see Moses’ hesitation it is now clear why their admission was so important. Were it not for these mirrors Israel would have died out in Egypt. More symbolically though, this midrash is a powerful statement about shifting our perspectives on what is holy and what is not. Here sexuality, which the “establishment” in the form of Moses assumes must be left outside the holy space is recognized by the women as a central part of what is sacred. They offer a mirror image of what holiness is, change our focus on what is really important, allow Jewish history to move forwards. These mirrors will now cleanse the Priests as they enter the Tabernacle, perhaps, when they use them they will remember those “righteous women” in Egypt, and they will for a moment see themselves, their families, the many myriads on whose behalf they are about to serve.
Pesach is a time of self affirmation for the Jewish people, we sit together in our homes, with our families and friends, proud of who we are and how we came to be this way. Indeed, the Pesach sacrifice was supposed to be eaten haburot, families or groups of friends. We are in effect looking it the mirror and seeing ourselves, a powerful statement for a people having survived so many persecutions. However, once we are able to see ourselves we are finally equipped to truly see the other, sacred partners in the formation of our common history. We in Israel are lucky to be living in a time when it appears that paradigms are shifting, where we are starting to see things from a different perspective. My prayer for this Passoever is that these new mirrors allow us to look beyond ourselves and to engage in a relationship with those around us for the sake of moving our history forward.