(This blog was first posted on February 27, 2011.)
He (Moses) put the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and he placed water there for washing. Moses and Aaron and his sons washed from it, their hands and their feet. When they came into the Tent of Meeting, or when they came up to the altar, they washed as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)
The last Torah portion in the book of Exodus/Shemot, Pekudei (“Inventories” or “Commissions” or even “Searches”) lists once again all the items made for the sanctuary and the priests’ garments, this time including the weight of the donated gold, silver, and bronze. Moses assembles all the parts, and then God’s cloud appears and fills the new Tent of Meeting. The portable dwelling-place for God is complete.
Its front half is a roofless courtyard surrounded by curtains, and contains the altar where slaughtered animals and grain are burned. The back half is the new Tent of Meeting, which is both curtained and roofed, and contains the holiest objects: the gold incense altar, the gold-covered bread table, the solid gold lamp-stand, and the gold-covered ark inside its own curtained alcove. Only priests, and Moses, can enter the Tent of Meeting.
The wash-basin in front of the entrance to the Tent is critical for the transition between the public courtyard and the inner sanctum. Washing in water symbolizes inner purification, the mental preparation necessary to enter a space where there will be closer communion with God. In the Torah, hands stand for action and power. By washing their hands, Moses and the priests dedicate their power and actions to divine service. Feet are related to one’s path in life, the direction one is going psychologically as well as physically; the greatest men in the Torah are described as “walking with God”. By washing their feet, Moses and the priests rededicate themselves to walking with God.
The wash-basin where this ritual takes place is made of bronze—but it’s not the same as the bronze donated by all the people with willing hearts and melted down to make the altar and its utensils. Last week’s Torah portion says the basin is made out of bronze mirrors:
He (Betzaleil) made the basin of bronze, and its stand of bronze, with the mirrors of the army (of women) who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus/Shemot 38:8)
nechoshet = bronze, copper. From the same root as nachash= snake; and nicheish = practice divination, seek omens.
marot = mirrors; apparitions. (Mirrors in the ancient Middle East were made of highly polished bronze, and were luxuries for the rich.)
tzav-u = mobilized, went to war, served in the cult, joined in public service
The unusual donation of mirrors led to a story in Midrash Tanchuma, a 5th-century commentary, that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the women used mirrors to entice their husbands into lying with them and producing more children. Moses hesitated to make a holy object out of mirrors, which are instruments of vanity. But God overruled him on the grounds that the women had used their mirrors for the good deed of multiplying the children of Israel. And the master-craftsman Betzaleil used the mirrors to make the wash-basin.
This fanciful story was accepted by many subsequent commentators. But I think it is inconsistent with the descriptions in Exodus/Shemot of the Israelite slaves as poor and oppressed. Surely they could not afford anything as expensive as bronze mirrors! The only time in the book of Exodus when the Israelite women could acquire mirrors is the day before they leave Egypt, when Moses tells them to take gold and silver jewelry from the Egyptians.
So why does the Torah say the wash-basin at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting is made out of bronze mirrors?
It’s always possible that an odd detail in the Torah refers to some ancient practice that occurred outside the story, perhaps in the cult of another group of people. But what I notice is that a priest washing his hands and feet at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting would see a double reflection: a reflection on the surface of the water, and a reflection from the polished bronze basin.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, wrote that the language in this verse might mean the mirrors were not even melted down, but only welded together in a form where they could still be recognized. Perhaps the basin would even show a different reflection in the surface of each mirror.
Furthermore, the basin was made by Betzaleil, whose name means “In the Shadow of God”. A shadow provides protection from the harsh sun of the Middle East, so some commentary notes that Betzaleil is under God’s protection. But a shadow is also a type of reflection; the original thing casts a shadow on the ground, just as the original thing casts a reflection in a mirror. The Hebrew word for shadow, tzeil, is the root of the word tzelem, which means “image”.
So when a priest steps up to the bronze basin, he sees multiple reflections of the sky and of his own body, and perhaps multiple reflections of the heavens, his own soul, and other aspects of God. After all, the basin was made by “In the Shadow of God”, and the word for “bronze” comes from the same root as “divination”. All of these reflections from the basin, besides reminding him that he is preparing to come closer to God, provide food for the priest’s inner reflections. Has he been using his body the right way? Has he been mired in harmful thoughts and emotions? Or has he been acting like someone made betzelem elohim, in the image of God?
After he has reflected, the water from the basin purifies him as he washes and rededicates himself to the path of holy service.
We could all benefit from washing at a basin of mirrors before we pray, or meditate, or take a moment to reflect on our lives.