Thursday, February 28, 2008

Parshat Vayakhel

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

This week’s Torah Episode “Vayk’hel” lists the generous contributions to the tabernacle, but the tale hides a word and 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.

“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” (Exodus 38:8, JPS translation).

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, 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 – Parshat Pikudei: Exiting the Exodus in High Fashion

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