By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
The L-rd spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall make a kiyor [washstand] of copper… and you shall put water therein. Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and feet from it. When they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to serve.”
– (Exodus 30:17-20)
What can a washstand, of all things, teach us about beauty and holiness?
To understand how this can be, and to more fully understand the power of beauty, true beauty – physical and spiritual – we need to return to the construction of the kiyor. Remember, the Jews had not long since been redeemed from slavery; they had experienced the miracle of the sea parting; had bickered and complained in the desert, and been witness to Sinai – but not before fearing and doubting enough to build the Golden Calf.
Though they had experienced the power and majesty of God they seemed unable to respond with anything other than the weakness inherent in their being former slaves.
And now it was time to build the space to house the Tablets of the Law. Moses called the people to bring their offerings to the Tent of Meeting so that they might donate to the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:21-22). Rashi understands the pasuk “And the men came al hanashim” (Ex. 35:22) to mean that the men came with the women. But the Da’as Zekeinim understands this pasuk differently. The narrative of the Tabernacle suggests that the donated items were women’s jewelry. The Da’as Zekeinim teaches that this tells us that the women, “…participated and were meticulous to contribute in the Service of Heaven.”
In this we see an implicit divergence in how men and women approached the holy task of building the Tabernacle. For the Da’as Zekeinim notes that when the people made the Golden Calf, the men took their wives’ jewelry by force. In other words, the women had refused to contribute to the creation of this idol. However, when it came to the Mishkan, the women enthusiastically donated their valuables.
Filled with fear, the men rushed to build the Golden Calf, forcing their wives to give their jewelry to the effort. When it came to housing the Shechina, the men proved to be the more reluctant contributors. After the sin of the Calf, they held back from an effort they saw as “confining” God’s Shechina to a sanctuary. They wanted God everywhere, without division. They overlooked that it was their sin of the Golden Calf that created the division, not the Mishkan.
The women eager and faithful in redemption, were happy to participate in the housing of God’s Shechina wherever He would have her rest.
For their sacred generosity, the women were rewarded with a “women’s holiday”, Rosh Chodesh.
But why Rosh Chodesh of all days? With our calendar based on the phases of the moon, the “new month” celebrates rebirth and renewal, imbuing the month, and the movement of time, with a powerful, feminine quality.
God blessed the women and their faith. Further, we learn that the kiyor was formed from copper. Where would the Children of Israel have gotten copper? Once again, the women were the source of what was precious and necessary.
They had used the copper in Egypt to form mirrors.
It is told that the men, exhausted and dejected from long days of labor, remained in the fields, not wanting to return to their tents and their wives. They shunned their wives because they did not want to father children who would only be born into a life of slavery. So the women took their copper mirrors and went out to the fields to beautify themselves and entice their husbands to come home and to lie with them and to have children.
Those mirrors represented Klal Yisrael. If not for those mirrors and the women’s determination to entice their men with their beauty, there would not have been a Jewish nation and we would have died out under the lash of slavery.
Even so, Moses initially rejected using the mirrors in the Mishkan. He argued that, because they were used for beautification, they were a tool of the yetzer hara. But God overruled Moses, judging them, “more precious to Me than anything else.”
Beauty, enticement, even seduction. How often do we denigrate these very powerful qualities, sometimes mistakenly suggesting that they run counter to tzniut? How often do those who are “more religious” go to extreme lengths to deflate a woman’s natural tendency toward beauty, never realizing that this inclination is captured in the copper mirrors used to form the kiyor of the Mishkan?
Tzniut is not the rejection of beauty! Far from it. It is the recognition that true beauty – physical and spiritual – must reside in a vessel dedicated to the glory and affirmation of God. Moses sought to dismiss the copper of the mirrors as mere objects of “vanity”. So too, the most seemingly religious amongst us seek to reject aspects and objects in life that they associate with beauty and femininity.
When they do, they call it tzniut but it is not tzniut!
Often, these women integrate their inclinations to the “mirrors” – to beauty and enticement – with their most sacred task, continuing the Jewish nation. This is why God wanted the kiyor fashioned from these mirrors, to emphasize and elevate the holiness of women’s sacred role in Jewish history. God dismissed Moses’ protest against the mirrors. To Him they were precious.
As long as they are used properly, in an attitude of humility and sacredness, then they too are sacred. They belong in the Mishkan.
Rosh Chodesh speaks to a powerful, feminine reality. Life waxes and wanes, but there is always the promise of rebirth. We must place our faith in that promise.
Men too often view the world before them and see an unchanging landscape. We are slaves today, we will be slaves tomorrow, we will be slaves always. Women know that just as the pangs of childbirth result in a glorious gift, the difficulties we face can often serve as preamble for better days ahead. Even if they were unable to convince the men to share their faith, in Egypt, they used their mirrors – and their beauty – to entice the men to act in a way that prepared the Jewish nation for a more glorious future.
Women are often very good at figuring out what is really at stake, even as men fight and argue about matters that turn out to be trivial. God not only appreciates that, He respects it. So he bestowed upon the sisters and daughters of Miriam a holiday that celebrated their faith in renewal, Rosh Chodesh.
The women teach us not to get mired in darkness. To find beauty in each day and to be patient and faithful. Renewal is before us.
We need only, sometimes, to get out of our own way.