This week’s double-parasha is a verbose carnival of the mundane in service of the spectacular, of the grind of minutia in service of liberation. The Israelites bring abundant raw materials and the gifted artisans guide the construction of God’s traveling home, the Mishkan, and all its sacred paraphernalia, a portable Mt. Sinai, as it were, a container through which the people can access Divine wisdom and insight throughout their journeys. I’ll confess that I, like many readers, sometimes find myself experiencing moments of boredom, tuning out, or glossing over, when reading these chapters, a spiritually parallel feeling I can experience in community organizing meetings, poring over small details of a particular action or strategy, over language in a proposed piece of legislation, in coalition negotiations. These minutia are the stuff of a just life of liberation; the work is constant and the struggle to balance tactics and vision is ongoing. All these details contain worlds.
Buried amidst the detailed inventory of sacred Mishkan equipment, the Torah teaches that chief artisan Betzal’el made the laver for washing hands and feet, as well as the stand to hold it “from the mirrors of the women legions at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8). The word translated here as “women legions” is “tzov’ot/צֹּבְאֹת”, a feminine plural word from the root צ.ב.א., which connotes large, powerful gatherings. Sometimes it refers directly to a military assembly or campaign (eg, Numbers/Bemidbar 31). Sometimes it connotes a military revue-style entourage, as in the common Biblical and liturgical phrase “YHWH of hosts” (eg, Isaiah 1:9). Sometimes it connotes mandatory, organized community service: for example, the Torah describes the duties of kohanim/priests as “everyone who comes to tzava to do labor in the Tent of Meeting” (Bemidbar/Numbers 4:3). The use is strange in our mundane verse, offering us several nagging questions: 1) What’s with the mirrors? I understand where the people got gold, silver, and fabrics, which they generously donated for many other components, from the Egyptian property they took as reparations on their way to freedom (Sh’mot/Exodus 12:35), but what’s the backstory for these mirrors? 2) Why are women specifically emphasized as donors of mirrors? We already learned that men and women alike contributed generously to the Mishkan (Sh’mot/Exodus 35:22); what’s the deal with women and mirrors? 3) Why describe the women as “legions” or “posses” or “entourages” or whatever tzov’ot means? Why not just say “the mirrors of women/מראות הנשים”?
The experience of digging for a backstory of people one year out of generations-long slavery inevitably will lead us to uncover some truth, some understanding of the liberation experience, some piece of subterranean, grassroots freedom history which we missed when telling the surface, leader-focused, official narrative. A piquant piece of Rabbinic folklore appears in a few different collections. As is so common with midrash, in answering the local question over which the reader trips — What’s with women and mirrors and washing vessels? — it answers some profound questions, perhaps unasked questions, about liberation. In the tradition of folklore, I have taken the liberty of fusing a couple of different versions of this midrash, from Midrash Tanhuma 9 and Rashi’s comment on Exodus 38:8, for fullest narrative flow.
“When Israelite men were toiling in their pointless, backbreaking labor, Phara‘oh decreed that they shouldn’t sleep at home, so that they wouldn’t have sexual relations. The women would go and bring them food and wine, and would feed them. They all had mirrors to look at while making themselves up, and as the men were eating and drinking, the women would take their mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror and would entice him with words, saying, ‘I’m prettier than you are’, and by so doing, they would arouse their husbands’ lust and would get it on with them, and the Holy One would help them be fruitful and multiply. When Moshe invited everyone to bring voluntary offerings for the building of the Tabernacle, the women didn’t hesitate to bring their mirrors. Moshe rejected them in disgust, because they were used for the evil inclination, telling the more conventional Israelites to beat the women with rods on their legs for offering such a lewd gift. The Holy One said to him: ‘You’re dissing those?! ‘Accept them! These are the most valuable of anything! It’s because of them that the women produced many legions in Egypt. Take them and make the brass basin and vessel for the priests, from which they can wash and be sanctified.’”
There is a lot to unpack in this midrash, the heavily thematized gender separation and different responses to oppression, the machinations to preserve sexual life and fertility, the strange use of mirrors as sex toys, the curiously competitive form of the women’s sexual play, the very unusual negative Rabbinic depiction of Moshe in a place where the Biblical text did not require it, the imagination that the leadership class would totally misunderstand the redemptive work in the grassroots, and more. To understand this midrash’s imagination about the sexual politics in the trenches of slavery, we must recall that the explicit point of Phara‘oh’s oppression of the Israelites was to control their fertility: “And the Israelites were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them.” Against that backdrop, “And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Forced labor was a strategy for controlling Israelite fertility: “So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens; and they built store cities for Phara‘oh: Pithom and Ra‘amses.” The strategy failed, of course: “But the more they abused them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so they loathed the Israelites” (Sh’mot/Exodus 1:7-12).
The Rabbis are unpacking the stunning fact of that last verse: under a brutal assault on communal sexual freedom and fertility, the enslaved people defied their oppressors and all odds and managed to affirm life through birthing more children than ever. The Israelites’ remarkable fertility may have felt like another miracle to the Egyptians, a direct, Divine intervention like the plagues. How else could separated couples conceive? The Torah knows how to tell us when there is direct Divine magic, though, and it says no such thing here, so the Rabbis fill in a very human story of underground resistance, led by women who refused to internalize the values of their oppressor and who understood that the despair of the men in their lives signaled just that internalization. Therefore, despair had to be met with eros.
Mirrors are tools of lust and ego. The masses of women understood the root causes of their oppression and of the despair in their midst. They used the mirrors to draw those crushed into submission what they had forgotten to look for. Listen to the tenderness, cheekiness, and rebellion all together in the women’s words of lust and ego-arousal. Rebellion is enabled through eros and eros, here, is aroused through taunting, playful hostility. Oh, you see yourself as a worthless tool of Phara‘oh who doesn’t merit freedom? Fine, you’re right. You’re ugly; I’m much prettier than you. Look. Some of the men’s pride and self-worth was probably ignited as they said, “Oh my God, she’s right! What’s become of me?!” and others’ as they instinctively fought back, “Screw you; I’m much hotter than you!”, and voila, there’s real interaction, real feeling, passion, and personal identity, where Phara‘oh tried to suppress it. This is the subterranean punk eros of life on the fringes, among the degraded outcasts, not the genteel courtship of mutual compliment, but the raw, arousal of lust and vitality from those under pursuit.
To my eyes, the Rabbis’ harsh depiction of Moshe in this midrash is one of the most arresting and moving moments in Rabbinic literature. There are places where the Biblical text depicts Moshe making mistakes and the Rabbis elaborate, but nothing in the Biblical text forces the Rabbis to imagine a failing Moshe here. When Rabbinic texts tell new stories about Moshe, the Rabbis are talking about themselves. By inventing a story about Moshe leading and God rebuking him, the Rabbis confront the scary realization of what they, the intellectual and spiritual leadership, would probably get wrong in the life of liberation. We would find the punks disgraceful. We would find no place for eros in the sacred. And we would be wrong.
The leadership class sees the tools of the oppressed as trash; where the grassroots experiences plenty, the leadership imposes a scarcity narrative onto them. The people were just one year out of slavery at the time of the erection of the Mishkan (Exodus 40:2), but the Rabbis imagine that that quickly, the leadership class would be that removed from the grassroots, would have internalized the thinking of the oppressor, in this case, revulsion at the raw, messy, fecund eros of power-building. God says no: the tools of the oppressed are the most precious of all; the organizing of the most directly impacted is the most essential stuff of liberation.
The Talmud teaches that it was “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b). Following the official, canonical freedom story, it is tempting to focus on great, brave individuals, the Great Women who dominate the first chapter of Exodus: Yokheved and Miriam, Phara‘oh’s daughter, the midwives Shiphra and Pu‘ah, all of them practicing dangerous and courageous civil disobedience where they have access, to defy Phara‘oh’s misogynist death cult, affirming life by literally saving babies. The Rabbis know, though, as we must, that heroic individuals spring out of mass, heroism in the grassroots, the army of subalterns who prevented Phara‘oism from taking hold. A true freedom culture centers the tools, fruit, and contributions of those subalterns. Where it does, that place can be a Mishkan, a place where God’s Godness dwells among the people.
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