Parshat Vayakhel: O The good life

Judaism does not ask man “How can you overcome life? but “How can you live correctly?”

view of fields 390 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
view of fields 390
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
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 Egypt.
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.
Judaism, 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 particular.
Enjoyment is a blessed thing when it is directed at a worthy goal.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.