Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Why does the Torah single out the basin and stand, both by omitting these items from the general reckoning and by specifying the origin of the copper used in the fashioning of these utensils?
What is the significance of the fact that these items were created from the mirrors donated by the women?
Diametrically opposed positions are adopted by the commentaries as they strive to interpret the unique origin of the basin and its stand.
Various scholars, including the Ibn Ezra and the Sforno, believe that the mirrors were suitable for use in the Temple specifically because their owners rejected those items’ usual usage. Mirrors are used, then and today, for vain purposes, to cultivate personal beauty and attractiveness. The women who donated these mirrors, however, as evidenced by their contribution, rejected physical vanity and showed a deep desire to cultivate and focus on a continuing spiritual relationship with God.
Taking a radically different tack, but evidencing an equally negative attitude towards personal vanity, the Chizkuni and a number of the Tosafists maintain that the strange passage concerning the basin and stand refers, not to the origin of these items, but to their placement. The basin and stand were strategically placed, they say, between the Sanctuary and the Mizbeiach so that they could be seen by the women regularly congregating at the Sanctuary.
The water from the basin was used in the divine trial of a sota, a woman suspected of adultery. (Talmud Bavli Sota 15b) The very sight of these utensils, therefore, would serve as a reminder of the dangers of licentious behavior. (Chizkuni, Shmot 38:8; Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot, Shmot 38:8)
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those commentaries, represented by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who not only maintain that the basin and its stand were fashioned out of mirrors, but that the mirrors’ normal usage actually recommended them for this purpose. The Mishkan, says Hirsch, ultimately aims to influence the Israelites towards the sanctification of their lives. How appropriate, therefore, that specifically the basin, used by the Kohanim for the sanctification of their hands and feet as they enter the Mishkan, should be fashioned out of mirrors. The physical, sensual side of man is, thus, not excluded from the Sanctuary but is, instead, “the first and most essential object” of its sanctification. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shmot 38:8)
Hirsch’s position is entirely consonant with Judaism’s fundamental view that no aspect of human existence is inherently evil. The sensual side of man is a gift from God meant to be channeled into sanctified relationships of love and marriage. The very origin of the basin thus serves as a reminder that all aspects of our lives, properly directed, are potential mediums for holiness.
A beautiful tradition found in the Midrash and quoted by Rashi further reflects Judaism’s position that no external object or human characteristic is inherently evil, but that value is ultimately determined by usage (see Bereishit: Bereishit 1 Approaches F).
During the period of Egyptian slavery, the Midrash relates, Pharaoh decreed that the Israelites should not sleep at home or have relations with their wives. Intent on perpetuating the nation in the face of this fearsome edict, the Israelite women went down to the fields of labor and, looking into their mirrors together with their husbands, aroused the men’s desire. In this way the women succeeded in ensuring that the nation would “be fruitful and multiply.”
Now, after the dramatic Exodus from Egypt and the powerful Revelation at Sinai, the newly formed nation begins to build the Mishkan. The Israelite women wonder: What can we contribute to the Sanctuary?
As one, they congregate outside the Mishkan and present their mirrors to Moshe. Moshe’s reaction is swift and harsh: What use have we for such mirrors – for items created to satisfy the evil inclination?
God, however, intercedes: These items are dearer to Me than all else! Through these mirrors the women raised up “countless hosts” in Egypt. (Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 9; Rashi, Shmot 38:8)
The Midrash informs us that, in the words of Nehama Leibowitz: “The same instinct or impulse which can lead man to perversions, filth and destruction can also lead him to creativity, the building of a house and the continuity of the nation.” (Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, p. 694)
The basin and stand in the Sanctuary serve as a reminder that God grants us gifts. The value of these gifts, however, is determined by how we use them.