In the detailed description in this weeks parsha, Yayakhel, of the building of
the mishkan (tabernacle) and its ritual objects, a unique object is described: a
coating for the sink meant for washing the hands and feet of the kohanim
(priests) before their service. This cover was made of copper mirrors that the
Jewish women had donated. These mirrors, our sages note, served an important
purpose when the Jews were slaves in Egypt.
The depressed and oppressed
men, tortured through heavy labor, busy morning to night just trying to survive,
lost the sense of enjoyment related to family life. They lived only to survive
and get through one more day of suffering. In these harsh conditions and this
gloomy atmosphere, the women’s job was to take care of continuity and the
following generations. This mirrors helped them to do this, as Rabbi Shlomo
Yitzhaki (Rashi), the great commentator on the Torah, describes: “The Jewish
women had mirrors in their possession that they used to beautify themselves, and
they were prepared to part even with them for the sake of contributing toward
the building of the mishkan. Moshe wanted to reject such a donation, for the
mirrors were instruments of the Evil Inclination. G-d, however, told him:
‘Accept them, they are more precious to Me than anything else, for by them the
women brought forth multitudes of offspring in Egypt.’ When their husbands went
out to the fields to perform their backbreaking toil, the women would bring them
food and drink and feed them.
They, with their husbands would look in
their mirrors, and arouse their husbands with loving words in order to make
their husbands feel passion and need, and they would get pregnant and give birth
there” (Rashi Exodus 38:8).
With this description, our sages give us two
approaches to looking at man’s enjoyment.
Moses looked at the mirrors
donated for coating the sink and rejected them. He saw them as having been made
for disgraceful, repulsive needs.
But God taught him that the approach of
Judaism to enjoyment is not negative at all. On the contrary, enjoyment and
fulfillment of man’s needs can serve as a way to actualize lofty values, such as
the survival and continuity of the Jewish nation during its time of slavery in
This idea is one of the values unique to Judaism as distinct from
other religions. In Catholicism, for example, it is forbidden for a man of
religion to live a family life and he must take an oath of abstinence and spend
his life without a partner.
As opposed to this, in Judaism, the High
Priest who works in the Temple – he whose job was the most important and most
sacred – is not allowed to be a bachelor. He must be married and have a healthy,
natural family life.
What does this idea reveal? When a religion commands
its religious leaders to be monastic and abstemious, it is actually expressing
that there is a conflict between life and religion. It is saying that religion
is not a part of life, but is opposed to it. Based on this claim, various
religions instruct their religious leaders not to marry.
however, sees the picture differently.
A religious life is the best and
most enjoyable way to live. “Live, and live well,” it says to its believers.
Judaism does not present a conflict between religion and life, but rather a
harmonious, wondrous integration of life through thought – a moral life, life
with purpose, goals, and significance. The goal is not to abstain from life; on
the contrary, life itself is the goal.
Judaism does not ask man “How can
you overcome life? but “How can you live correctly?” The description of the
mirrors that coated the sink in the courtyard of the mishkan expresses exactly
what the Jewish perspective is on life in general and on life’s enjoyments in
Enjoyment is a blessed thing when it is directed at a worthy
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.