This Shabbat we reach the end of the second book of the five of the Torah. Pekudai marks the end of Shmot. It recounts the actual execution of the blueprints of the Mishkan, the movable sanctuary of the Wilderness.
We are told that the construction of the Mishkan served to atone for the great sin of the Golden Calf. The people of Israel were called upon by God, through Moses, to contribute materials to be fashioned into objects of wondrous beauty. One of the holy vessels placed in the Tabernacle was the washbasin of copper. It was used by the priests upon entrance into the Sanctuary, when they left the rather mundane environment of the camp to occupy themselves totally with sacred service. Thus, it served as a bridge between the secular and the holy.
Who contributed the materials for this particular holy thing? The Torah tells us that the women who assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting donated their mirrors for its fashioning. What was the history of these mirrors? We look to the Midrash to provide illumination.
Rashi, the pre-eminent medieval Torah commentator, quotes Midrash Shir HaShirim: He tells us that during the worst times of Egyptian bondage, all of the men, the slaves, gave in to despair. They withdrew from their wives, thinking, “What is the point of bringing children into this existence?” But the women refused to give up. They had faith that this period of enslavement would end, that the Jewish people would be redeemed and that a future of freedom and opportunity awaited their children.
And so, the women beautified themselves in front of the mirrors and went to greet their husbands as they trudged back from their labors. The Midrash tells us that they would hold up the mirrors to reflect themselves and their men, and would say, “See how much prettier I am than you!” The men would be drawn back to their wives and, against all odds, they continued the generations.
This story of faith reminds me of a story from my family’s lore. When my grandmother and mother received a telegram that my uncle had been shot down over Germany in 1944, my grandmother told my mother, “He will come back to us. And there will not be a hair missing from his head!” This emunah was rewarded and my Uncle Mutt, even into his 90’s, had an enviable head of hair.
Moshe did not want to accept the mirrors for the construction of the laver. He thought that they represented vanity and such things had no place in sacred space. God, however, because of their role in Jewish survival, over-ruled him, saying, “These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else. Use them to make the washing-stand of the Mishkan.”
When the Mishkan was finished, the men were once again overcome by depression. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, there was no need for the Mishkan. God’s Divine Presence dwelt among the people. But the fall from grace caused the Shechinah to leave the people. From then on, the camp was divided – the camp of the Shechinah which was the Mishkan, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites.
The men had thought that while the construction was ongoing, there might be a reprieve from this situation. Now that it was completed and the permanence of the punishment for the Golden Calf became evident, they fell into despair. It was again the women who saved the day. They said, “Now is not the time to despair. Now is the time to look to the future and embrace the holiness of the Mishkan enthusiastically.”
In Egypt, the women’s faith saved K’lal Yisrael from physical extinction. In the Wilderness, their hope saved the people from spiritual death.
For these great acts, the women of Israel were rewarded with a special status regarding Rosh Chodesh. This is especially significant on Shabbat HaChodesh, as we announce the New Moon of Nissan. We will be having a special women-led Shabbat service on Friday, April 1st. If you haven’t yet been contacted to take part in this service, please call Karen Augenstern or me. The monthly festival of the New Moon celebrates the concepts of renewal and rebirth. The moon is continually waxing and waning, and, even in its darkest phase, we know it will regain its full measure of light and beauty. Because of the women’s faith in just these ideas, they are aligned with Rosh Chodesh and told not to labor on these days. Also, as my mother would tell my father, every woman is owed a new dress every Rosh Chodesh!
So, just as the laver in the Mishkan was able to elevate the Kohen from the mundane to the sacred, the women of Israel were able to raise the relations of man to wife from the physical realm to that of the spiritual.
May we strive to transform the everyday into opportunities for holiness and expressions of faith.