We’re in the desert.
Moses received a lot of very detailed instructions from God about how to build a Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert, but didn’t share them with anyone yet.
Then, before he actually shares them with the people, and building gets underway, we have a fairly dramatic sequence of events: Aaron and the other new priests get a new wardrobe and a very public and impressive ordination; we take a census of men over age 20 (plus collecting ½ shekel from each) to ward off a plague; we get reminders to keep the Sabbath, and um, then there’s that Golden Calf debacle.
Now here we are in Vayechel, when Moses gathers the community together, reminds everyone about not working on the Sabbath again, asks for donations for the building fund, and finally, the building of the Mishkan begins. The description of the construction the people carried out is as detailed as the instructions Moses received, with very few differences. One, however, is this verse:
“He (Bezalel) made the laver (a sort of sink) of copper, and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8)
This one sentence raises so many questions, not the least of which is, who were these women? What were they doing at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting? And why is their offering singled out, when we already read that women are taking part in the building of the Mishkan through weaving and cloth-working?
There is a well-known commentary by Rashi (11th c. French rabbi) that says these mirrors came from back in Egypt, when the community was faced with forced separation of the men and women. So, the women would take their copper mirrors down to where the men were working, and entice them by preening in front of the mirrors, arouse the men and bring them back into a marriage relationship, ensuring another generation of children. In the text, Moses rejects the women’s contribution, but in the midrash, God reminds him of the good outcome of their use.
In contrast, Ibn Ezra (a Spanish rabbi, one generation younger than Rashi) says the mirrors were given up by the women because they didn’t need them anymore. They had given up their worldly vanities to study the commandments, since ordinarily, Ibn Ezra says, “women have no other occupation than to beautify their faces every morning in copper or glass mirrors, and to arrange their hats.”
So that’s our choice, ladies. Either we did the right thing by seducing our men, or by giving up our “inherent” vanity to become ascetics. Or, perhaps there’s something behind door number three.
There’s been a steady rise in volume of women’s voices in Biblical scholarship and lay study. Many books have been written, including the publication of The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary in 2007, one of my favorites. But even that trusty resource didn’t answer the question I had, so I went back to the text and noticed that the word “woman” doesn’t even appear; it’s just that the verbs are in feminine form, so translators have always projected that these people at the opening of the Tent of Meeting were women. The noun/verb phrase is actually hatzv’ot asher tzav’o. The root is the same as “army”, or in Biblical language, “hosts” (Adonai tzvaot …Lord of Hosts).
So here’s my door number three: a horde of women, amassing at the door to the Tent of Meeting, who, as Ibn Ezra suggest, want to learn and take part. So they offer up their own ½ shekel, their mirrors, to be counted as part of the community, not to only weave and sew, but to lead and learn. And unlike in Ibn Ezra’s opinion of women, this feminine force doesn’t have to deny who they are as women in order to take part in the ritual richness of their faith. As the last two generations have proven, Jewish women have much to add to the leadership of the Jewish community, as clergy and educators, scholars and commentators. We are not just at the door to the Tent of Meeting, hoping to glean some understanding of what leaks out of the Mishkan. Perhaps this one isolated verse highlights, or maybe foreshadows, a time when women can approach the Holiest of places, leading the community in prayer, avodah (service).
We are richer for having looked in our mirrors, all of us, and seen our truest selves reflected back, a community of men and women both, leaders who are “zealous for God”.