Sinks & Mirrors – Vayakhel Pekudei
This week, we read two portions – Parshat Vayakhel and Parshat Pekudei. (During a leap year, these portions are read on separate weeks; but on a regular year, they’re combined in order to complete the entire Torah before Simchat Torah when the annual reading cycle recommences with Parshat Bereishit.) Parshat Vayakhel vividly describes the Kiyyor (Laver), the vessel in the Mishkan that the Kohanim used to wash their hands and feet before beginning their service. The Kiyyor was fashioned of brass, as written, “And he made the Kiyyor [of] brass and its foot [of] brass with the mirrors… (38:8) The brass used for the Kiyyor was exceedingly precious, as it had previously served the Jewish women in Egypt as mirrors. When the nation approached Moshe Rabbeinu en masse to offer their precious metals, jewels and riches in order to build the Mishkan, the women proffered one of their most prized possessions – their mirrors; and it was these valuable items that were used to fashion the Kiyyor.
In Parshat Pekudei, the Torah returns to discuss the Kiyyor and describe its purpose: “And he placed the Kiyyor…And he placed there water to wash with…And they washed with it…Moshe and Aharon and his sons…their hands and their feet…upon approaching Ohel Mo’ed, they shall wash…” (40: 31-32).
There are several explanations as to the function of the mirrors in the Kiyyor. The Imrei Shefer writes that the mirrors were used by the Kohanim when they washed their hands and feet in the waters of the Kiyyor to examine their reflections and ascertain that there was no stain or imperfection on their priestly garments. The mirrors were affixed there in order to help them prepare for the holy service. (Cited in Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez)
As a child, I once visited in a grand hotel in Jerusalem with my family. Aside from the impressive marble staircase and dazzling flower arrangement positioned at the main entrance of the hotel, what most amazed me was the huge netilat yadayim sink – a giant brass fixture that I automatically assumed was a replica of the one in the Beit Hamikdash.
When it was finally proven toward the end of the nineteenth century that hand washing drastically diminishes the spread of disease and conversely increases life expectancy, the world witnessed a dramatic improvement in general health, and from there began an upsurge in new, innovative medical discoveries. Prior to the development of industrialized medicines, prior to the invention of medical technology and the miracles they engender; the great revolution was…lo and behold, hand washing. Today, hand washing is so ingrained in society that you’ll nary find a doctor or dentist or even a waiter who doesn’t sanitize his hands and wear gloves on the job.
The cosmic force of spiritual hygiene is deeply ingrained in a Jew. When a person rises in the morning after a night of sleep, the first mitzvah is to wash the hands, thereby removing the night impurities and cleansing oneself spiritually in preparation of a new day. Washing hands prior to any meal that includes bread is another Jewish ritual sourced in the Priests in the Mikdash who purified their hands and feet before commencing the holy service. Designating a special place in the house for what’s colloquially called ‘the netilat yadayim sink,’ endows a common sink with deep significance and splendor.
Practically speaking, a netilat yadayim sink should ideally be situated in close proximity to the main eating area. A second option is outside the restrooms, which makes it functional for washing hands both after using the facilities and prior to eating.
The main consideration in a kitchen sink must be functionality, which is why it is usually fashioned of a material that’s easily cleaned (granite), easily koshered (stainless steel), large and deep. A bathroom sink, in contrast, can lean to the original and artsy, blending naturally into the room design and featuring a distinct shape.
The netilat yadayim sink is naturally the most decorative sink in the house, and the wall behind it may feature an interesting design on the tiles or a glass-encased blessing “Al netilat yadayim” or “Asher yatzar.” Most important, of course, is an attractive mirror above it to let us steal a peek at our reflection. Because even if we’ve washed our hands, it’s always good to check that our head is on straight!
“Mirror, mirror on the wall”— Jewish romance
The mar’ot hatzovot which were offered by the women as a donation to the Mishkan and ultimately used to fashion the Kiyyor were initially rebuffed by Moshe Rabbeinu, whose instinct was to refuse the gift.
Every year when it’s time for Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, I reflect upon the marvelous Midrash of the mar’ot hatzovot which never fails to touch me personally as both a woman and designer. I quote the Midrash here in full as I feel that its beauty and power is rooted in the poetic ancient text.
When Hashem instructed Moshe to build the Mishkan, all of Yisrael stood and volunteered. There were those who brought silver and those who brought gold… The women said, ‘What do we have to donate to the Mishkan?’ They rose and took their mirrors and brought them to Moshe.
When Moshe saw those mirrors, he grew incensed. He told Yisrael: ‘Take sticks and break these mirrors; for what are they needed?’ Hashem told Moshe: ‘Moshe, this is what you spurn? These mirrors are what brought about these multitudes in Egypt! Take them and fashion them into a brass Laver and its foot for the Priests; and from it the Priests will purify themselves…’
How were these mirrors responsible for the multitudes of the nation? The Midrash enlightens: The daughters of Yisrael would go to draw water from the Nile, and Hashem would send small fish into their jugs; and they would sell and cook them, and take wine and go to the fields where they would feed their husbands there (as written, “in all the work of the fields.” When they would eat and drink, they would take the mirrors and gaze at them together with their husbands. She would say, “I am more beautiful than you”; and he would say, “I am more beautiful than you.” With this, they would desire each other and have relations; and Hakaddosh Baruch Hu would grant them children immediately.” (Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Pekudei Ch. 9)
When the Jewish women offered their most personal effects – their mirrors – as a donation to the Mishkan, Moshe Rabbeinu spurned them and replied, “Mirrors? This is meant for powdering your nose, putting on lipstick, and checking if your lens is in place. But for the Mishkan? For the Kiyyor? How can you use these articles for the holy vessels of the Mishkan?”
Yet Hashem replied, “Yes!” These mirrors encompass unfathomable holiness, as Jewish women, physically, emotionally and spiritually broken beneath their Egyptian oppressors, used them to arouse their husbands upon their return from the fields. While their exhausted husbands thought of nothing but falling into bed like rocks after another day of torture, the women adorned themselves in order to attract them even in the midst of unbearable pain and hardship. It was these noble actions that spurred the continuity of the Jewish nation and led them out of Egypt with an uplifted spirit. Indeed, the place for these holy mirrors was not deep inside their pocketbooks but around the holy Kiyyor.
I feel that a mirror adds a touch of romance into a room, especially when encased in a beautiful frame. When my husband shared with me the incredible Midrash about the mar’ot hatzovot, the brass mirrors used to fashion the Kiyyor in the Mishkan, I realized just how right I was.
A mirror possesses a special magic in that it reflects reality. Sometimes, it distorts it slightly; sometimes it enhances. But it will always challenge the one who examines it with an eagle eye. Mirrors are a fabulous element that can be integrated into almost any design in many areas of the house. Some people feel uncomfortable when surrounded by too many mirrors, preferring paintings or pictures and reserving mirrors for places where it has functional use only: The bathroom and bedroom. Did I shave right? Does my dress match my shoes?
Me? I think there’s something wonderful and beautiful about mirrors in other places in the house, like the living room or dining room, etc.
A mirror perfectly reflects what’s going on, which is one reason that it is dynamic and constantly changing…In the dining room, the view is a set table and the family eating around it. (In the dining room, I recommend a horizontal wall mirror.)
The foyer is another great place, letting you steal peeks at the people coming and going (and obviously to check a minute before leaving that you didn’t forget anything.) Small mirrors can be placed atop dressers, and big ones opposite or near doors.
In a kids’ bedroom, a mirror might be used to practice funny faces and, if Mommy lets, spread finger paint in assorted shades of blues and yellows.
In the master bedroom, it is both functional and romantic (as long as it’s got the right frame). In fact, every place in the house can call for a mirror!
In a house, a mirror can be more than a wall decoration. It can actually be a piece of furniture! There are dressers coated in mirrors (almost like the Kiyyor in the Mishkan…) A dining room table can be topped with a mirror; and closet doors can reflect all that’s going on as mirrors, as well. Mirrors are also beautiful tabletop accents when they serve as a base for flowers or candlesticks.
There are items in the house that are purely functional and others that are solely design. Sinks and mirrors have a double effect: On one hand, they serve a very practical, functional need and are extremely useful. On the other hand, you can spread your wings and imbue them with that added design element, and with that combination you express both their Matter and Spirit!