Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
Eroticism in the Service of God
Moshe Rabainu (Moses) thought it was obscene. God thought otherwise.
While raw materials are being collected for the construction of the Tabernacle, hundreds of women assemble before Moshe to contribute their vanity mirrors. Moshe, according to the rabbinic tale, is repulsed by the thought of using their mirrors for the Tabernacle. They are vehicles of lust, he says, and therefore disqualified from playing any role in divine service. Women stand in front of them to preen and beautify themselves, in order to arouse men’s baser impulses. He rejects the mirrors out of hand.
God however, overruled Moshe and declared that these mirrors were more beloved by Him than all the other contributions for the building of the Tabernacle. Ultimately, the Torah tells us in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus chapter 38, verse 8), these brass mirrors were used to fashion the laver to be positioned in the Tabernacle courtyard, the waters of which the priests would use to cleanse themselves in preparation for the holy sacrificial service.
The story, as found in the Talmud and paraphrased in Rashi’s commentary on our Torah portion, goes on: The men and women who built the Tabernacle in the Sinai desert were the same men and women who had earlier suffered the yoke of Egyptian bondage. Our sages explain that while enslaved, the menfolk lost all hope and concluded there was no point in giving birth to another generation of Israelites who would just be born and die in servitude. And so they refrained from intimacy with their wives. But the women had faith where the men had none. They would fight Pharaoh’s plan to destroy the Jewish People no matter what the circumstances. And so they conspired to arouse their husbands’ desire and thereby conceive, insuring that when the time for redemption came, there would be someone to redeem.
These mirrors were the means they used to execute their plan. Not only did they look at themselves as they dressed and applied their makeup. Rather, they would take the mirrors with them as they trekked out to the fields to be with their exhausted and discouraged husbands. The women, having brought with them food and water, would feed the men and give them to drink, and afterwards would bathe them and anoint them. Then they would use the mirrors to playfully display their beauty to their partners, thereby creating an atmosphere of love and bonding…
The message is clear: Moshe was the humblest of men. His byword is modesty, tzniut in Hebrew. He cannot abide the vanity and the superficiality represented by this tool that one uses to look at his own image and beautify his or her self. He finds mirrors offensive, even disgusting.
But God teaches him – and us – a lesson. Not all mirrors are the same. Makeup and preening are not evils in and of themselves. Physical desires are not always bad. Sometimes it all depends on the framework, the context, the purpose. It is true that the ends don’t always justify the means. Often they do not. But sometimes that which would appear to one to be disqualified for divine service, is instead precisely the means for approaching God for someone else.
Perhaps, according to our sages, there are many ways to serve God, many more ways than we might think.