Friday, March 16, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Exodus exits this week, mission accomplished: the Hebrew Nation is born and
on its way home. The book ends with the last moments of preparation for
cutting the ribbon – activation of the brand new sanctuary to the Deity who
delivered deliverance. Poetically, the saga that started with slaves
building bricks of bitterness concludes with a community of artisans
erecting a home for God. Another book-end motif of the birth-myth of the
Hebrews is the profound, but underplayed role of the women. In this weekly
double Torah Episode 'Vakhel Pekudei' – lost in the lists of generous
contributions to the tabernacle, hides a word – and hides a story about
survival, sexual arousal, and feminine intelligence – hinting at the erotic
and mystical dimensions of the sacred.

It all begins innocently enough; when it was time for the construction of
the Sacred Sink – a washing station for the tabernacle employees – the
Levites. This is the only plumbing device featured in the plans for the
mishkan, and the construction called for brass or copper, but the source of
this donated metal proved to be a source of some contention.

Exodus chapter 38:8
And he made the laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the
mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of
meeting. (JPS)

Who are these women and what are they doing at the tent's threshold and
what's with the mirrors? The Hebrew ' b'marot hatzov'ot' does not
explicitly mention women, but the verse identifies the keepers of the
mirrors as 'feminine' and 'assembled' leading to multiple translations:
"mirrors of the women who assembled," " mirrors of the ministering women
that ministered at the door of the tent of meeting.", " women who performed
tasks," "women who served at the entrance," "mirrors of the
women-work-force" or "crowds of women who crowded before the tent".
The Pseudo Jonathan delivers a curious version – covering up a bigger story:

'And he made the brazen Laver, and its foundation of brass, from the brazen
mirrors of the pious women, who, at the season, came to pray at the door of
the tabernacle of appointment, standing with their oblations, giving thanks
and confession, and returning to their husbands, the mothers of righteous
children, who had been purified from the uncleanness of their blood.'

Brazen mirrors?? What this translation alludes to is a lesser known legend,
quoted by Rashi – tracing the mirrors all the way back to Egypt, where they
served as sex toys – raising the oppressed and repressed Hebraic libido and
bumping up the population surveys: 'When their husbands were weary from the
hard labor, they would bring them food and drink, give them to eat and take
the mirrors. Each one would look into the mirror together with her husband
and tease him with words saying: "I am more beautiful than you." In the
course of this they would arouse their husbands' desire and copulate.'

Moses, according to the legend, did not want those 'brazen mirrors' in his
new tent, but the Holy One, intervened, instructing the inclusion of these
sacred objects of vanity in the very place where bodies would be sanctified
for divine service.

The Hebrew word for 'mirror' is very similar 'mar-aa' and is also related to
the Hebrew word for 'vision'. Thus, as the second book of Moses ends, amid
smoke and mirrors, the visionaries, midwives, artists and freed slaves join
to tell the hopeful tale of freedom over oppression – political, sexual,
religious and aesthetic. Just in time for Passover.

Next time you wash your hands in your bathroom sink, ponder, where in your
personal sanctuary is the erotic elevated into the sacred?

Next week – Leviticus: welcome to God's kitchen.

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