August 23, 2019 |

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

In the laws of Torah Reading (Code of Jewish Law, Way of Life 147:1), R. Moshe Isserles, the famed Ashkenazic rabbi and Halachic decisor, comments that one should not use an 'old' item in order to cover or dress a Torah scroll. In other words, it's not appropriate to use an old t-shirt for a Torah cover or an old belt as a gartel (the belt tied around the scroll). But the point is not so much that they are old and worn; even a beautiful and barely-used tuxedo would not be appropriate for the Torah, simply because it was designed for another purpose. Objects of sanctity - such as a Torah -- and even objects used in the service of objects of sanctity - such as a Torah cover or gartel - should not be hand-me-downs. (My older cousins dressed much better than I did and so I thought hand-me-downs were great, but I, clearly, am not a Torah scroll, though see Moed Katan 25a.)

In his footnote on this ruling, the Magen Avraham (R. Avraham Gombiner, 17th century) comments that one MAY use a hand-me-down for a Torah if it is somehow changed or modified for its new purpose. Then, it is not a discarded object being used for the Torah, but a newly-constructed item that has been custom-made for the Torah. Thus, if one were to take an old tuxedo and modify it specifically so that it was a "Torah tuxedo" (like they do, l'havdil, with wine bottles), it would still be in bad taste (IMHO), but it would be permitted according to Jewish Law.

The Magen Avraham's proof for this is subtle and interesting. And I quote: "for the washing basin [in the mishkan/Tabernacle] was made of vanity mirrors." Here, he is quoting our weekly Torah portion, which says:

"And he [Moshe] made the washing basin out of copper and its stand out of copper with the vanity mirrors that had been collected at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8)

What were these vanity mirrors? Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, 10th c.) quotes the Rabbis:

"Jewish women (lit. daughters of Israel) had mirrors with which they looked at themselves when they were making themselves pretty and even these items they did not refrain from donating to the mishkan..."

According to the Magen Avraham, they melted down these mirrors and used the copper from them for the basin or changed them in some other fundamental way, in order to use them for the sacred purpose of building the Tabernacle. In this way, they were no longer mirrors that had been donated to the cause, but custom-made objects.

However, other commentators disagree. Chazkuni (R. Chizkiya bar Manoach, 13th c.), for instance, says that the entire basin was covered with mirrors so that when one approached it, they could see their reflection. In other words, the mirrors were used as they were and were not changed.

This may seem like an arcane point of law, but it hides within it a beautiful point. Mirrors are not necessarily just every-day household objects, they are also particularly objects of beauty and, potentially, of vanity. Mirrors are all about external beauty, narcissism, an unhealthy fascination with how we look rather than who we are.[1]

In fact, Moshe did not want to accept the mirrors from the daughters of Israel. In his mind, the Tabernacle should not have been tainted with objects of lust and self-love. However, God compels Moshe to accept them, saying "these are more precious to me than anything else, for via these mirrors, the women raised up an army [of Jewish children] in Egypt." (in Rashi)

God wants Moshe to be deeply impressed with the fact that - even under the worst excesses of Egyptian brutality - Jewish women kept their mirrors and made themselves beautiful. Love and desire (and, 9 months later, children) between husband and wife survived and flourished even in Egypt. Those mirrors can be put on display even in a holy place because they were the instruments of the endurance of Jewish love.

But there's more. The mirrors were not put on display at the entrance of the mishkan. Their point was not that people could check their hair or straighten their ties before they came to stand before God. Rather, they were used in the construction of the basin, the kiyor. The basin was placed just outside the entrance of the Holy chamber (in which were the menorah, the table for the priestly loaves and the golden altar) so that the kohanim (priests) could wash their hands and feet before they went in to do the service of God.

I think the choice of pairing the basin and the mirrors has both a positive and negative message. The negative message calls to mind the sordid ordeal of the suspected adulteress, called sota. In the (unlikely) event that all of the evidence[2] pointed to a woman being an adulteress and she did not confess, part of her trial was to drink some water drawn from the basin into which was erased (i.e. the ink was scraped) God's name. As the water was drawn, all who were present would be able to look at the mirrors of the basin and consider how the pursuit of physical lust could lead even two people who are deeply in love to violate the most intimate trusts and terms of their relationship. It was a reproof to the woman for letting physical desire overtake her and a warning to others that the idea of mirrors (i.e. getting carried away with externals) can lead us into sin.

The positive message calls to mind the primary role of the basin, which was to purify and raise the level of holiness. As the kohanim had the water poured over their hands and feet, they could look at the mirrors and think to themselves that beauty and the physical world can - and should -- be used in the pursuit of Godliness. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th c.) puts it: "So that it was shown that the physical sensual side of human beings is not merely not excluded from the sphere which is to be sanctified by the Mikdash, but that it is the first and most essential object of this sanctification."

It's not just mirrors or make-up. A Rabbi is not allowed to wear dirty or stained clothes. Although his job is to model a spiritual life (not a physical one), he too should look in the mirror and make sure that he presents himself in a way that is externally pleasing. Of course, he shouldn't spend all his time perfecting his pompadour and practicing his smile, because his job is not to impress the girls, but to impress the souls. A shul should look beautiful so that the glory of Torah is both external and internal, but if all the congregants are admiring themselves in the floor to ceiling mirrors in the restrooms or are more concerned about how they look than their beautiful sanctuary, well, that's bad.

Even while in mourning, a woman is allowed to beautify herself for her husband. It's not that a man shouldn't find his wife attractive no matter how she looks (which is true of how I see my wife) but that it's good and necessary to use the physical world to enhance our relationships and make them healthier. We always want a woman to beautify herself for her husband, we just don't want her to be doing it for all the other men.

In the end, we come back to the Magen Avraham, who thinks the mirrors needed to be changed in order to be used for the basin. His point is not that far away from what we have been saying. He wants to insist that any object used for a holy purpose be consecrated especially for that purpose. No hand-me-downs.

In other words, if we want to use beauty (and externals) for the sake of God, let us make sure that that's what we're using them for. All too often, our motives are cloudy. A woman might say she is looking in the mirror to make sure she looks beautiful for her husband, but hidden deeper within her motivations is the desire to impress her friends. A man with a beautiful voice may believe that his leading the congregation is in order to have a beautiful service, but deep down he also wants everyone to praise him for his terrific tenor voice. The Magen Avraham, perhaps, requires us to break down the mirrors of our own vanity first - to change them -- before we put them into the service of the holy.

When we look at the mirror on the wall, let us strive to use that reflection not for our own shallow, ego-driven insecurities (alas, we all have them) but for some greater purpose. Let us not refrain, like those courageous daughters of Israel, from being brave enough to even donate our mirrors to a holy cause and make the Jewish people stronger.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Some commentators, in fact, suggest that the women gave the mirrors to the Tabernacle to show that they did not need them anymore, i.e. they rejected the need for physical vanity.

[2] The evidentiary burden was extremely high, so it was unlikely that there would be frivolous accusations.

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Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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