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The erection of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert was an event of such major importance that the entire episode is repeated in detail in this week’s parshios together with an accounting of the distribution of the contributions of the Israelites towards its construction. One of the utensils of the Mishkan was the ki’or, the washing basin, from which the kohanim were required to wash their hands before performing any service there.

The Torah says (Shemos 38:8), “And he made the basin of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women assembling, who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.”

Rashi brings an explanation from the Midrash (Tanchuma, Pikudei 9, with some variations) why the bronze for this utensil was taken specifically from the women’s mirrors:

The women of Israel possessed mirrors of copper into which they used to look when they adorned themselves. Even these they did not hesitate to bring as a contribution towards the Tabernacle. Now Moses was about to reject them since they were made to pander to their vanity, but the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him, “Accept them; these are dearer to Me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt.” For when their husbands were tired through the crushing labor they used to bring them food and drink and induced them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors, and each gazed at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am handsomer than you.” Thus they awakened their husbands’ affection and subsequently became the mothers of many children, as it is said, (Shir Hashirim 8:5) “I awakened your love under the apple tree.” This is what it refers to when it states, Mar’os Hatzov’os, “the mirrors of the women who reared the hosts” [this is a slightly different interpretation from the one in the actual text of the passage itself: “the mirrors of the women assembling”]. And it was for this reason that the washing basin was made of them because it served the purpose of promoting peace between man and wife by giving of its waters to be drunk by a woman whose husband had shown himself jealous of her and who nevertheless had not associated with another (Bemidbar 5) thus affording her an opportunity to prove her innocence (Sotah 15b).
It seems a bit difficult to comprehend that the crushing labor caused all of the Jewish men to be too exhausted every night to be with their wives and have children. Slaves bore children all through the generations, no matter how hard they worked all day. I think that there is a much deeper meaning here.

We find another interesting story in the Talmud (Sotah 12a), brought in Rashi (Shemos 2:1).

Amram (father of Moshe) was the leader of the generation. Once Par’o the wicked decreed, “All newborn sons shall be cast into the River” (Shemos 1:22), he said, “Our toil (to have and raise children) is in vain.” Therefore, he arose and divorced his wife. Then all of the husbands arose and divorced their wives. His daughter (Miriam) said to him, “Father, your decree is worse than Par’o’s. For Par’o’s decree is only upon males, while yours is on males and females; Par’o’s decree is only (to destroy them) in this world, while yours is in this world and the world-to-come; Par’o’s decree may or may not be heeded, but yours surely will be since you are a tzaddik whose decrees are upheld….” He then arose and returned his wife. Then all of the other husbands arose and returned their wives.
We see here that Amram, the leader of the Children of Israel, and all of his followers, felt that the situation was hopeless and there was no sense in bringing children into a world of misery to grow up in a holocaust. But little Miriam was able to see past the darkness, and focused on the light at the other end of the tunnel. She concentrated on the Redemption, which would be coming after the Bondage and didn’t want to prevent all of the unborn Jewish children from partaking in it.

I think that perhaps the above Midrash deals with the same debate. The problem was not that the men in Israel were physically exhausted, but rather that they were emotionally drained. They had given up hope and could see no purpose in bringing new children into the world to share in their misery. So they refused to be with their wives.

But the women were more optimistic and were already preparing musical instruments to play when they would be redeemed from Slavery (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 41, brought in Rashi, Shemos 15:20). They, therefore, cajoled their husbands to be together with them and bring forth children who would share in their Liberation and receive Hashem’s Torah on the Mountain of Sinai.

What is striking in both of these stories of Chazal is the fact that it was specifically women who did not lose hope and looked past the darkness of the present to the light of the future. Why was this so?

The Sages taught us (Niddah, 45b), “Women possess an extra measure of Understanding than men do.” It is, perhaps, this “extra measure of Understanding” which helped the women of Egypt realize that the situation they found themselves in was far from hopeless. They saw the underlying truth and were not fooled by outward appearances. They saw a future for their People, the slaves, and wanted their children to be a part of it. And they were rewarded with a special part in the Mishkan. No kohen, not even the Kohen Gadol (the Chief Priest) could perform any service in the mishkan without first washing his hands from the ki’or which was made from the mirrors of the women of Egypt. (Although Rashi stresses the fact that the ki’or was used to make peace between man and his wife, the Midrash Tanchuma, which is Rashi’s source, stresses that the kohanim had to purify themselves first in its waters.)

Many men can testify that their wives possess a special “inner understanding” which was a source of encouragement for them when they were very depressed due a situation they viewed as hopeless. Their wives were the ones who came to the rescue and gave them the strength to go on until salvation finally came.

But one has to be smart enough to let his wife help him. I know a young man who proudly introduces his wife as his mashgiach” (spiritual supervisor). “She sees to it that I get up in time to pray with a minyan,” he often says, “and that I go to learn and teach Torah on time and, in general, behave like a real Jew should.”

But I know another fellow who always complains about his wife and often makes comments like, “Who does she think she is, my mashgiach or something?”

We all know that, “You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make him drink.” Hashem provides people with blessings but it’s their free choice to decide if they want to benefit from them or not.

Let’s try to appreciate all of Hashem’s gifts and thank Him for them always. And let’s not forget to thank our wives, themselves, for all of their help and encouragement, especially at times when we needed it most, in order to continue in our efforts to succeed. May Hashem bless them always and fulfill all of their hearts’ desires for good, Amen.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel