One of the painstakingly detailed aspects of the Mishkan’s planning and development is the process of materials procurement. Aside from the portions about the fundraising, the Torah includes a public ledger accounting for all sources and uses, recording where every single donation ended up.
While not exactly riveting stuff, there is a discrepancy in how the Torah accounts for the donated bronze:
וּנְחֹשֶׁת הַתְּנוּפָה שִׁבְעִים כִּכָּר וְאַלְפַּיִם וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת שָׁקֶל. וַיַּעַשׂ בָּהּ אֶת־אַדְנֵי פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת מִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְאֶת־מִכְבַּר הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֵת כָּל־כְּלֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר וְאֵת כָּל־יִתְדֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כָּל־יִתְדֹת הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב – The donated bronze came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. From it he made the sockets for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the bronze altar and it’s bronze grating and all the utensils of the altar; the sockets of the enclosure and the sockets of the gate of the enclosure; and all the pegs of the Mishkan and all the pegs of the enclosure. (38:29-31)
The Abarbanel notes that there was another bronze vessel we know of that doesn’t feature on this list, the washbasin. It is categorized separately from the main bronze accounting because this bronze didn’t come from the regular bronze operating account; it came from a wholly separate source to the rest of the general fund:
וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – He made the washbasin and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who amassed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)
Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that the women of Israel wanted to donate their personal makeup mirrors to the Mishkan fund, and Moshe considered rejecting the mirrors since they are, on their face, used to satisfy the evil inclination. At that moment, God interceded and implored Moshe to readily accept the personal makeup mirrors, declaring them the dearest of all contributions. The subtext of this surprising dialogue is that when the enslaved men in Egypt were exhausted and spent after a day of backbreaking labor and abuse, they no longer wanted to be with their wives, the thought being that there would be no more children, and their misery would come to an end. To address this, the women would bring their husbands food and drink, and used these personal makeup mirrors to successfully attract their husbands back, directly resuscitating the imperiled future of the Jewish people. Rather than perceiving these actions as mere and mundane acts of the flesh, God recognized their heroic valor in the Jewish People’s great time of need.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights the deep and symbolic significance of how as crucial a boudoir item as a personal mirror, which functions to draw attention to the human body as an object of sensual desire, can be co-opted and integrated into Divine service. Moreover, the washbasin these mirrors became specifically functions to consecrate hands and feet; our bodies are simple and mundane organic matter, yet we can elevate and refine our bodily movements and instincts by transforming our purpose. There is no separate track for holy things – we create holiness through our everyday actions and footsteps. The instruments of women trying to attract their husbands became the instrument that changes a person’s status from impure to pure. It is hard to overstate the significance of the directional flow – from impure to pure!
The discrepancy in the accounting of how the bronze was used teaches us an important and illuminating insight about the role of intimacy. It’s taboo to discuss, to the extent that it is not uncommon for people to write off the whole topic as forbidden and associate it with guilt and shame. But it’s accouterment became not just a central feature in the Mishkan, but quite plausibly the dearest donation of the lot!
It is imperative to separate what’s kosher from what’s not – and to get it right! The laws of איסורי ביאה and עריות are extremely severe and have catastrophic consequences highlighted by, among others, Hoshea and Yirmiyahu. They really matter! But we must not forget that the very first commandment from God to humans is to be fruitful and multiply. The Sefer Hachinuch observes that the mitzvah’s nature is that God desires a world populated with life, which is intuitive, because we are designed to precisely that specification, along with every living thing. It’s actually a feature of being a living thing!
Judaism is extremely focused on the purity of our sexuality. Adam and Chava were created naked and felt no shame until much later in the story when they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. There was nothing intrinsically bad about their naked bodies, and so no shame associated with it. They were living expressions of holiness in their natural state! It was only once they gained a deeper perception and understanding of good and evil that they lost this perfect clarity, and there was now a notion that sex could be immoral and so their nakedness could be shameful and embarrassing.
Nechama Leibowitz teaches that the same impulses which can lead us to destruction can just as equally lead us to sanctity – to building our families and perpetuating the future. Chazal recognized the need to serve God with our best and worse inclinations – בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ – literally, “hearts”, plural.
While desire is categorized as stemming from the evil inclination – תאווה – we must recognize its necessity as an essential precursor to life, to the extent that the Midrash labels the evil inclination as “very good”. Like eating or drinking, it is an essential biological driving force that is integrated and synonymous with being alive, and when controlled, and channeled appropriately at the proper time and place, it can be a mitzvah.
Critically, not just “another” mitzvah – the separate treatment of the women’s personal makeup mirrors teach us that intimacy and everything associated with it can be the dearest thing there is.