Using the Bad for Good by Eitan Mermelstein (’21)

This week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYakheil, is a sequel of sorts to Parashat Tetzaveh, describing the actual construction of the vessels used in the Mishkan. The Torah lists how each vessel was made and how the leaders of the nation, who were tasked with building the Mishkan, obtained the materials required for its construction. However, with regard to the construction of the Kiyor, the vessel which contained the water for washing the hands and feet of the Kohanim, the Torah uses an unusual phrase to describe the material used: “VaYa’as Et HaKiyor Ve’Et Kano Nechoshet BeMarot HaTzove’ot Asher Tzavu Petach Ohel Mo’eid”, “He made the Kiyor of copper and its pedestal of copper, with the mirrors of the legion women, who congregated at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’eid” (Shemot: 38:8). Many Rishonim ask: who were these women who gathered at the entrance to the Ohel Mo’eid, what is the significance of their mirrors, and what does the word “Tzove’ot” mean in this context?

Rashi (ibid. s.v. BeMarot HaTzove’ot) writes that these mirrors were used by the Jewish women in Egypt to beautify themselves. They would use these mirrors to apply make-up to help convince their husbands, weary of slavery, to have children. The success of this ploy caused the women to produce the legions (‘Tzeva’ot’ in Hebrew) of Klal Yisrael when they left Egypt. However, because these mirrors had been used for seduction, Moshe originally refused to accept them for the building of the Mishkan. Nonetheless, Hashem intervened and told Moshe to accept these mirrors as a contribution, as these mirrors had caused Klal Yisrael to grow so rapidly in Egypt; Hashem said that these mirrors were more beloved to him than any other material. Indeed, these mirrors were used for the Kiyor, which held water used in the Sotah process of adjudicating marital infidelity; this would restore peace between husband and wife.

Ramban (ibid. s.v. BeMarot HaTzove’ot) concurs with Rashi that Moshe originally rejected the mirrors, until Hashem told him to utilize them for the Kiyor. Additionally, Ramban says that these women brought the mirrors directly to Moshe’s tent because the Mishkan had not been built yet. However, the Ramban also presents a second interpretation of this Pasuk based on the view of Onkelos. He states that these women had abandoned worldly desires of beauty, and so their mirrors were now useless to them; this is why the women gave up their mirrors for the construction of the Mishkan. Now, they came each day to the entrance of the Ohel Mo’eid to daven and hear words of Torah. Ramban further posits that more and more women would join them each day, forming the legions alluded to in the Pasuk. Ramban also agrees with Rashi that it is fitting that these mirrors were used for the Kiyor, because of the role of the Kiyor in the aforementioned Sotah process.

Ibn Ezra (ibid. s.v. BeMarot) comments on this Pasuk in a similar vein to the Ramban’s second approach. He writes that prior to the time of Parashat VaYakheil, these women would frequently look at themselves in these bronze mirrors and would act like the rest of the nations of the world. Now, these women, who had abandoned material desires, gave their mirrors as a gift to the Mishkan because they no longer felt a need for them. Instead, they came every day to the Ohel Mo’eid to daven and listen to Moshe’s instructions about the Mitzvot.

Based on Rashi’s interpretation, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) said that Moshe originally did not understand how these mirrors could be incorporated into the Kiyor; after all, the Kiyor stands directly adjacent to the Mizbei’ach, where Jews will come begging for forgiveness by offering a Korban Chatat. However, Hashem intervened. He said that these women, who were so fixated on their physical appearance in Egypt but who nevertheless raised a generation of children longing for redemption, would in fact recite their confessions for future sins with more grief than any others. Thus, it was fitting that their mirrors be utilized for the creation of the Kiyor.

The Rav explained that this story contains an idea which is fundamental to the concept of Teshuvah. Moshe did not want to accept these gifts because of what they represented, namely succumbing to materialism. However, Hashem explained to him that the idea of repentance is not only predicated on confession (acknowledging that we are sinners and God is righteous), but also on the idea that we must cleanse ourselves by using the very object of our sin for goodness. Accordingly, Rabbeinu  Yonah, in his Sefer Sha’arei Teshuvah, writes that the tenth principle of Teshuvah is, “LeHeitiv Pe’alav BaDavar Asher Zadah Alav,” “To improve one’s deeds with the very matter with which one sinned” (Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar 1 Tenth Principle). May we all take this lesson to heart in our continual quests for self-improvement.

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