Pharaoh sought to kill not just the Jewish slaves’ babies, but their spirit. As an act of spiritual resistance, the Israelite women, according to Midrash Tanhuma, used their mirrors to beautify themselves, enticing their drained and downtrodden husbands to procreate.
Years after the Exodus, when Israelites are asked to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan (the traveling Tabernacle), copper mirrors appear in the collection basket. This week’s Torah portion reads: “He made the laver of copper and its base of copper, from the mirrors of the legions who massed at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” [Exodus 38:8].
Shabbat Candles: 6:55 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 35:1-40:38; 12:1-20
Haftorah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
Havdalah: 7:54 p.m.
The Sages say there is no doubt that these mirrors belong to Israelite women. However, the phrase “mirrors of the legions” (mar’ot hatzov’ot) is perplexing. Commentators across the generations have sought to understand the significance behind these donations.
Ibn Ezra believed that the newly given Torah and the Mishkan represented a turning point in spiritual development. Yearning for a deeper connection to God, Jewish women showed up en masse, turning in their precious mirrors as a disavowal of vanity.
By contrast, Rashi said the mirrors reflected an embrace of sensuality when the future looked bleak, before the Exodus, rather than a rejection of vanity after. Citing the Midrash mentioned above, Rashi adds that Moses hesitated to accept these contributions, lest these vehicles of vanity be integrated into the Divine’s dwelling place on earth. The Midrash describes how God frames these mirrors’ intrinsic value to Moses as sacred catalysts enabling the Jewish people to stand together before God as a legion, as far as the eye can see.
While these commentaries focus on the word “legion” only in regard to quantity, it has a qualitative nuance as well. We might understand the “mirrors of the legions” as a strategic approach in a war for survival. Thus, their inclusion in the Tabernacle’s infrastructure serves as an inspiration about the lengths our people will go to secure the future.
Sadly, we know that Egyptian slavery and persecution was not the only time when Jewish life hung in the balance; just one of the earliest chapters.
In 1944, 73 years ago this week, the Nazis marched into Hungary; more than 440,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered with the assistance of Hungary’s Arrow Guard. In Budapest, the Arrow Guard rounded up several thousand Jews and brought them to the banks of the Danube River. Like the Israelite babies thrown into the Nile, Jews were shot into the Danube, transformed into a watery graveyard tinged red with blood.
During one of the marches to the river, a Jewish artist named Lucy Braun walked side by side with her mother and sister. Not knowing her destination yet sensing danger, this young woman summoned the courage to grab her loved ones and run away. This act of courage in the face of death miraculously saved their lives as they found shelter for the remainder of the Holocaust.
…By making these slaves look up as their first gesture of freedom, God teaches the “posture of hope.”
Despite the anti-Semitism that preceded the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust and institutionalized prejudice during the Communist era, Lucy crafted a life of meaning and purpose with Judaism as her North Star. When the Iron Curtain fell and Judaism could be practiced openly again, the esteem in which the Budapest Jewish community held Lucy Braun was affirmed. The community invited Lucy to design the historic Dohany Synagogue’s new parochet, the cover for the Torah Ark.
We can only imagine that Lucy was chosen as much for her beautiful artwork as her inspiring life. Woven into the fabric of this Torah covering is an intimate understanding of the great lengths our people have endured to preserve and honor life.
This Shabbat has special significance because it is Shabbat HaChodesh, with its Maftir reading reminding us that Nisan is coming (Monday night and Tuesday), and the first commandment given our people was to declare Rosh Chodesh, announcing the new month (the new moon). God tells the Israelite slaves to lift their heads and look to the sky. It is hard to look at the moon and not think about tomorrow. Thus, by making these slaves look up as their first gesture of freedom, God teaches the “posture of hope.”
With hope as our people’s strategic advantage, we can better understand why God urges Moses to include the women’s mirrors in the Tabernacle. These mirrors symbolize not vanity, but conviction and courage in the face of persecution, time and time again.
Finally, Shabbat HaChodesh alerts us not only that Nisan is coming but also Passover. Of all of our holidays, Passover is when we are supposed to raise our heads high with hope, and dream about the legions of tomorrow.
Rabbi Charles Savenor is director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.