The water laver (kiyor) in the Mishkan was formed from the copper mirrors of the women in Egypt. In grade school, this midrash (Rashi, Exodus 38:8) is taught simplistically and translated with heavy commentary. The women would beautify themselves and thereby remain attractive to their husbands so that procreation could occur amidst the backbreaking labor that the Egyptians imposed up the Jews. This virtuous beautification merited to become an integral part of the making of the Mishkan.
The rest of the midrash Rashi references however, goes as follows: Moses rejects the contribution of these copper mirrors, claiming that they are objects of lust, and have no place in the outer courtyard of the Mishkan. This sensitivity is immediately shut down by the Almighty. “Accept these gifts immediately, for they are the most dear to me of all things” with these the women established (he’emidu) legions in Egypt. The common translation is that they ‘gave birth to legions’. but a more direct translation is closer to “established armies.” This difference highlights the specific ways in which the almighty found these mirrors so dear.
What exactly transpired between the men and women in this copper mirror seduction story? The story unravels as a study of the complex nature of competition, gender roles and seduction in the male/ female dynamic. The women bring their husbands food and drink to the fields where they were working. The women descend to the fields without ever glancing in the mirrors. They descend to the fields, feed their husbands with the food that they brought, and then hold up the copper mirrors to reflect themselves and their husbands side by side. They force the men to look at themselves and the women with them, to remember the following dynamic. They begin to tease the men saying “I am more beautiful than you.” The men are shocked out of their slave mentality, into competitive mode. The male competitive spirit is aroused through these copper mirrors by the female competitive spirit, not by the passive seduction of women primping in order to become objects of lust. The product of these seductions is described literally not as giving birth, or conception, but establishing legions, less productive and more militaristic in tone. The procreation is secondary to the interplay of inspiring competition between the genders and igniting the dwindled motivation that inspires men and women to want to be with each other.
In today’s society, we are constantly negotiating between the supposed weaknesses of being a woman and the assumed and historic benefits of being a man; how to level the playing field to give equal access to women, while still addressing the needs of men. We are stuck in a dynamic out out-manning or out-womaning each other to achieve some kind of balance while still maintaining difference and thus attraction.
Embedded within the Torah approach to gender roles lies one of the most radical solutions to gender inequality that plagues the modern world. This is the revolutionary concept of viewing men as women as competitive partners, each vying for a worldview that reflects their own values, yet neither desiring the submission of the other. Gender roles can be used to free men and woman, and they can be used to oppress both men and women.
The Almighty’s final argument for these copper mirrors culminates in this last line: “these were mirrors used to make peace between husband and wife,”a value that is held as one of the highest in our tradition. (Once the mirrors were melted into the kiyor, they became an essential tool in resolving the suspicions of the jealous husband in the sotah ritual.) This peace born of healthy competition, offers itself as a model for a revolutionary understanding of many of the core tensions between male and female cultures in our own community.
Miriam Gross has been a Jewish educator for over 12 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State College and a Master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. She served as a congregational rebbetzin for seven years in Omaha, Nebraska and Baltimore, Maryland. Miriam currently works for the DFI, an agency of the Baltimore associated and is a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and four children: Raya, Zoey, Joseph Zvi, and Meyer.