The Art Of People Watching


Before the Kohanim would enter the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) or approach the altar, they were commanded to wash their hands and feet from the laver. Not doing so was a capital offense [Exodus 30:20].

The washing of one’s hands and feet may have been the easiest of all the required rituals in the Sanctuary, but that didn’t make it any less significant. On the contrary, not only was it the prerequisite for the priest’s presence in the Sanctuary, but the ritual washing has become an essential part of the halachic life of every Jew — such as washing one’s hands upon rising, or before the eating of bread.

Therefore it’s interesting that the very last physical item connected to the rituals of the Sanctuary that the Torah mentions is the washstand, or laver. If it’s true that the Torah wants us to pay particular attention to this washstand, then we must reread its description in Vayakhel, the previous portion: “He made the copper laver and its copper base out of the mirrors of those who produced legions [armies of women] who congregated to serve at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting [Ex. 38:8].

It is significant that the Torah speaks of the mirrors of the women. After all, a mirror is associated with vanity. Is it not strange that such “vanities” are to be considered worthy of being used by the priests for sanctification before the start of any ceremony or offering?

Ibn Ezra calls the women’s contribution of mirrors a victory of spiritual values over physical vanity. Rashi describes how the Israelite women in Egypt used the mirrors to beautify themselves so as to seduce their husbands into sexual relations for the sake of having children. Rashi wants to stress that one should not be quick to reject the physical — even sexual — aspect of our existence. If anything, Judaism ennobles sex and love within marriage, which is why kiddushin, Hebrew for marriage, is derived from kadosh, the word for holy. When two people become physically united in order to become partners with God in creating another person, they are engaging in one of the holiest acts a human being can pursue. If a mirror can help in the process, what finer material is there for sanctification before the priest performs the Divine service?

Moreover, from this perspective, the mirrors signal to God the women’s profound faith in a Jewish future. Imagine Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule, a Holocaust of 210 years’ duration! Knowing that their sons would be drowned in the Nile, why would any Hebrew want to bring more children into the world?

Thank God for the women, God is teaching Moses. The women remembered the Divine promise to our patriarchs and matriarchs that foretold the ultimate redemption of the Exodus and entry into the Promised Land. In the midst of persecution, slavery and infanticide, bringing Jewish children into the world was an act of supreme faith. The mirrors were an instrument for the expression of that faith.

The Hebrew word for mirror (marah) has the same letters as mareh, appearance. We all realize that we are more than that which the mirror reflects. The mirror does not show our inner selves, our memories and aspirations. Every time the priest would sanctify his hands and look in the mirror, he would be inspired to reflect not only on his own face, but on all the faces of all the people who would be seeking atonement in the Sanctuary.

After all, who commonly came to the Sanctuary? People in search of atonement, individuals bringing guilt and sin offerings. It could be easy to forget the individual behind the person who arrived with his offering. That priest might forget that one who commits a sin is not necessarily a sinner. A one-time lapse does not necessarily define an individual’s character and personality. Just as the priest understood that the face staring back at him in the mirror is hardly the total picture, so he should not judge his “clients” by the reason they entered the Sanctuary.

The women who beautified themselves for their husbands were an easy target for a cynic to ridicule their efforts as an inappropriate physical desire. But perhaps the message of the mirrors was the exact opposite: Don’t look at me only as I appear now in the mirror. Look at me the way you saw me as a bride, the mother of your future children. The present is only a small part of the story. Human history, and certainly Jewish history, dare not be judged only by the moment.

Looking at people is an art, and when the prophet describes how the future Messiah will look at people, he stresses that “he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes” [Isaiah 11:3]. We must learn to see within.

And so we see the central role of the washstand and mirror, representing the faith of the Israelite women in Egypt when their husbands’ spirits were broken. It was now important for the Kohen to look and ascertain a true and full picture. In the final analysis, our reflection in a mirror is only a small part of who we really are.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:36 p.m.

Torah: Exodus 38:21-40:38

Haftarah: I Kings 7:51-8:21 (Ashkenaz); 7:40-50 (Sephard)

Havdalah: 6:38 p.m.