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Parashat Vayakhel

March 8, 2024
29 Adar I 5784
Parashat Vayakhel
Exodus 35:1 - 38:20


Dear Friends,

On my dresser I have an item that draws my granddaughter’s attention every time she visits. It has drawn her attention since she was around two. Now, as a big girl of five, it is her favorite object on that dresser -- a small silver mirror that is part of a set. A hand mirror is a very intriguing object. It is shiny and we can see ourselves reflected from many different angles.

This week’s Torah portion Vayakhel, "And He Assembled" (Exodus 35:1-38:20, 30:11-16), primarily focuses on the people’s role in building the transportable sanctuary for the Divine: the Mishkan. Although the portion begins by telling us that we are to rest on Shabbat and not labor, the rest of the portion focuses on the role of the people in creating the Mishkan and providing the supplies needed to complete the task.

What makes this portion so heartening is that the people are so generous in their offerings that Moses has to tell them to stop bringing their valuables as enough have been collected. Among the items collected are the mirrors that women brought with them from Egypt. The midrash tells us that Moses wanted to reject the mirrors because they were used by women to sexually ensnare men by beautifying themselves. But the Divine, we are told, contradicts Moses, as the women needed to be attractive to their mates in order to bear children and have the people survive through all their years of oppression. Or as it is written: “Accept them! These are more precious to Me than anything, because through them the women set up many ‘legions’ [tzevaot] in Egypt.” When their husbands were exhausted from crushing labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink. Then the women would take the mirrors and each gazed at herself in the mirror together with her husband. She would coax him with language, saying, “See, I am more beautiful than you.” In this way they aroused their husbands’ desires, and subsequently became the mothers of many children. This is what the midrash refers to when it says “the mirrors of the tzoveot” – those who reared hosts (of children).

What I love about this midrash is that the women are not simply seducing their men. They are using the mirrors to bring laughter, joy, and a sense of play into lives that are quite difficult. The power of women, especially in this women’s history month, is often taken for granted. But here it is front and center in our story. Women are the source of hope, continuity, and joy even at the darkest of moments. This is about so much more than having babies. In the same way that my granddaughter likes to play with the mirror to see herself in different angles, the women and men of the midrash use the mirrors to see themselves in new ways, beyond the straits they find themselves in.

We are told that mirrors ultimately served a very important purpose in the Mishkan. They became the bowls in the Mishkan that hold the water to purify the hands of the priest. But for us, the transformative power of the mirror lies in the midrash itself. Aviva Zornberg calls the mirror game transformative, reminding the enslaved, beaten-down men of the beauty in the world: “Her boast, as they gaze together at their reflection in the mirror, is a challenge to her husband, grimy with clay and mud, to see beauty within that blackness.” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p. 61).

That's just what we need right now -- to rediscover the beauty that lies within and all around us. Let us use our mirrors as a means to see the things around us differently as those women did so long ago.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784