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Parashat VaYakhel 5784

It's Done With Mirrors

March 5, 2024
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval ('06)

In challenging times, how do we stay strong and sustain our spirits? When I am in need of sustenance for my soul, I find myself turning to stories of people who retained faith, hope and their humanity in the most horrific times and circumstances. A midrash on this week’s parashah, VaYakhel, imagines such a story. It is a story of women, from the ancient narrative of our people’s enslavement in Egypt.

The sages of the Talmud famously stated, “In reward for the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.” (B. Sotah 11b) We think of the women of Exodus who appear in the Torah, including Miriam and Yokheved, the Hebrew midwives and the daughter of Pharaoh, all inspiring models of resourcefulness, resistance and faith But rabbinic sources extend the praise to the Israelite women in general, drawing on a verse in VaYakhel. There, as the Torah describes the construction of the mishkan, it notes,

And he made the basin of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of “the women assembling,” in Hebrew: bemar’ot ha-tzoveot, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8).

The mirrors are the only gift that receives attribution in the text, suggesting that their source is significant. It is also unclear. The mirrors are brought by the “tzoveot,” a group variously translated into  English as “the women assembling,” “the women who performed tasks,” “the women who flocked to the entrance,” and the “women’s working-force that was doing the work.”

The midrashic authors see another meaning of “tzoveot,” and they create an imaginative narrative about these women and their mirrors. Rashi summarizes these midrashim in his comments on this verse:

“From the mirrors of the tzoveot”: Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the mishkan. But Moses rejected them, because they were made for vanity and temptation. The Holy One said to him, “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 it refers to when it says “the mirrors of the tzoveot” – those who reared hosts (of children).

The women in this midrash resist Pharaoh’s decrees and foil his genocidal plans in a most literal, physical way, by producing many babies. They help ensure that there will be a people to redeem. But the midrash is about more than the women’s seduction for the sake of procreation. Its use of mirrors reflects deeper ideas about retaining one’s spirit and humanity when suffering from oppression and confronted with hate.

A victim of oppression is deprived of possibilities, is in narrow straits, as we sometimes describe Mitzrayim. Babies represent the opposite, they symbolize possibility, the future. Giving birth to many babies opens and expands those narrow straits. Mirrors too, can reveal multiple perspectives, diverse images seen from different angles, and thus they too can open the imagination to multiple possibilities. The ability to imagine possibilities belongs to a free person, it is an act of resistance from spiritual slavery, an act that nourishes the spirit.

The mirror game of the midrash is playful, as the woman teases her husband. Playfulness evokes a sense of delight, and innocence, a suggestion of faith that goodness and pleasure continue to exist. Aviva Zornberg, in her extensive analysis of this midrash, 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).

When the woman and the man look in the mirror, they see themselves. Each sees themselves as a person with an identity, a reminder of who they are. This sense of self is precisely what slavery, and hateful stereotypes, try to take away. The mirror restores individuality and humanity. And, when a couple looks in the mirror together, they see each other and see themselves as a couple, a reminder of relationship, of tenderness and love.

The images of the women and their mirrors lay out lessons about ways to sustain our spirits in challenging times. These include connecting with who we are – with our humanity and identity and the humanity and identities of the people in our lives; using our freedom to imagine possibilities for the future; and remembering to take pleasure and delight in those we love and in the beauty of the world, as we work for, and pray for, redemption.
Rabbi Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.