“And he made a copper washbasin and its copper base from the mirrors of the women that came to pray at opening of the Mishcan.” (Shemot 38:8)
Sforno explains that these mirrors were not among the original donations to the Mishcan. He also comments that it is not at all obvious that the mirrors should have been accepted. Mirrors are designed for use in indulging fascination with personal appearance. Therefore, they are identified with the instinctual component of the personality. It might be concluded that this identification would disqualify the mirrors from use in the Mishcan. Why were the mirrors accepted? Sforno explains that these women had devoted themselves to the study of Torah. They congregated at the Mishcan to hear the Torah lessons taught there. Their decision to contribute their mirror reflected their personal values. They had determined that the instinctual habits represented by the mirrors were not worthy of their attention. Therefore, they abandoned the mirrors. These mirrors did not represent the instinctual. They represented the conquest of these individuals over the yetzer harah.
Rashi provides a different perspective on this donation. He comments that Moshe was reluctant to accept this contribution. Hashem instructed Moshe to reverse his decision. Moshe was concerned with the mirrors’ association with the yetzer harah. Why did Hashem want this donation? Rashi explains that one of the reasons the Egyptians afflicted Bnai Yisrael with intense physical labor was to slow down the population growth. Paroh wanted to work the men to the point of exhaustion. He reasoned that this would undermine relations between man and wife. The women defeated Paroh’s plan. They would travel out to the men. They would bring food. And they brought their mirrors. Man and wife would share a meal. Then the wife would hold her mirror in front of herself and her husband. Jokingly the wife would brag of her greater beauty. A relaxed banter would develop. The rigor of the work would be temporarily forgotten. Marital life was maintained.
The washbasin in the Mishcan was designed entirely from these mirrors. What is the lesson that the Torah wishes to teach through this utensil? Perhaps, the washbasin is designed to represent an important aspect of the Torah’s perspective on the yetzer harah the human instincts. The instinctual component of the personality is responsible for sin. Greed, lust, hatred and every other lowly personality trait are derived from the instincts. For this reason, our Sages refer to this component of the personality as the yetzer harah. However, the Torah does not maintain that the instincts are inherently evil.
Rav Eliyahu of Vilna the Vilna Gaon explains that the yetzer harah is responsible for many essential human functions. Procreation would not be possible without the drive of the yetzer harah. He argues that we would not even eat were we not instinctually motivated. These are a few examples of the many important functions of human instinct. Only if the pursuit of instinctual pleasure is an end within itself, do these drives become evil. So, although sin is derived from the yetzer harah, the instincts are not innately sinful. The mirrors reflect this concept. Although the mirrors are tools of the instincts, they are not evil or unfit for use in the Mishcan. The suitability of the mirrors depends upon the manner in which they are used. If used towards a proper end, the instincts and the mirrors belong in the sacred Mishcan. Only when misused are the mirrors and instincts tainted.
“And you should place there the Ark of Testimony. And you should shield the Aron with the curtain.” (Shemot 40:3)
Our pasuk discusses this Parochet. This was a curtain suspended in the Mishcan, in front of the Aron. According to our pasuk, the function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron. The Mishcan was composed of two areas. These two areas were the Kodesh the Holy and the Kodesh HaKadashim the Holy of the Holy. The Aron was placed in the Kodesh HaKadashim. A curtain the Parochet separated these two areas. The Chumash, in Parshat Terumah, indicates that the purpose of the Parochet was to separate between these two areas. It seems that the Chumash is offering two different characterizations of the function of the Parochet. Our parasha indicates that the function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron. In Parshat Terumah, the Chumash indicates that the function of the Parochet was to separate the Kodesh from the Kodesh HaKadashim. How can we reconcile the two conflicting characterizations?
In reality these two sources are not contradictory. The Parochet was essentially a shield in front of the Aron. The Chumash, in Parshat Terumah, does not deny this definition. The Chumash is merely requiring that this shield be extended beyond the dimensions of the Aron, in order to create two areas within the Mishcan. In other words, the shielding function defines the Parochet. Once the Parochet meets this qualification, it can be extended to create a separation between the Kodesh and the Kodesh HaKadashim.
There are various laws that support this understanding of the Parochet. The Talmud, in Tractate Yoma, comments that the staves of the Aron actually protruded into the Parochet. One who observed the Parochet from the Kodesh would see two projections pushing out the curtain. This strange requirement can be understood based upon our understanding of the Parochet. The essential function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron. In order to demonstrate this function, the staves protruded into the Parochet. This also explains another interesting halacha. The Parochet played a role in the service associated with certain sacrifices. A portion of the blood of these sacrifices was sprinkled, by the Kohen, toward the Parochet. This law is expressly stated in the Chumash. The Midrash Torat Kohanim, comments that the blood could not be sprinkled toward any portion of the Parochet. The sprinkling must be directed specifically towards the portion of the Parochet that was between the staves of the Aron. Why was this portion of the Parochet special? Based on our discussion, this halacha can be appreciated.
The Parochet was, in essence, a shield for the Aron. Therefore, the essential portion of the Parochet was the portion directly in front of the staves. The blood was to be sprinkled on this portion of the Parochet. This role of the Parochet is evident in today’s synagogues. It is customary to hang a curtain in front of the Aron. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Ztl explained that this practice is based upon the halacha in our pasuk. We are duplicating the practice in the Mishcan. Our Ark represents the Aron of the Mishcan. Therefore, our Ark requires a curtain. It is not surprising that we call this curtain a Parochet.
“And place the sacrificial altar before the opening of the Mishcan the Ohel Moed. And place the laver between the Ohel Moed and the altar and fill it with water.” (Shemot 40:6-7)
Parshat Pekuday includes a detailed discussion of the actual assembly of the Mishcan. A careful analysis of the details of this account reveals many interesting aspects of the Mishcan. In particular, the relationship of the various components can be defined through these details. Our passage provides a beautiful example.
The first step in assembling the Mishcan was erecting the tent. The central element of the Mishcan was the Ark the Aron. Therefore, once the tent was erected, the Aron was placed inside. Generally, the other components were added in a specific order. This order corresponded to the distance of the component from the Aron. In other words, the objects closest to the Aron were installed first. These were the Menorah (the candelabra), the Shulchan (the table), and the incense altar. The sacrificial altar was located in the courtyard of the Mishcan. It was farther away from the Aron than the previous items. Therefore, the sacrificial altar was installed after the Menorah, Shulchan and incense altar. However, there is an exception to this order. The laver was located in the courtyard. It was placed between the sacrificial altar and the Mishcan. It was closer to the Aron than the sacrificial altar. Therefore, we would expect it to be installed before the sacrificial altar. Yet, the installation of the sacrificial altar preceded the placement of the laver!
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Ztl explains that in order to answer this question, we must review the command regarding the laver. This command is found in the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa. There, Hashem commands Moshe to construct the laver and place it between the Mishcan and the sacrificial altar. Rav Chaim points out that this command defines the location of the laver in relation to the Mishcan and the altar. This location emerges only after the Mishcan and altar are in place. In other words, no point can be defined as “between the Mishcan and the sacrificial altar”, until the Mishcan and altar are in place. This answers our question. The laver could not be installed until after the altar. This is because the location of the laver is defined relative to the altar and the Mishcan. This location only emerges after the altar is installed.
“And it was that in the first month of the second year, on the first day of that month the Mishcan was erected.” (Shemot 40:17)
The Mishcan is completed and brought to Moshe. Moshe erects the Mishcan on the first day of Nisan, in the second year of the sojourn in the wilderness. This was the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishcan. On this day, the service in the Mishcan was performed by Moshe and the kohanim. After this day, all service would be performed by the kohanim. Moshe would no longer serve in the Mishcan. Moshe was not a kohen. Yet, on this eighth day of the inauguration and the previous seven days Moshe served as a priest. Why was Moshe appointed for this task? The service was assigned to Ahron and his sons. How could Moshe serve in the place of the kohanim?
The commentaries offer various answers to this question. One of the most interesting solutions is provided by Gershonides. He explains that Moshe was “the father of the priesthood and had given birth to it”. What is Gershonides telling us? Moshe was not Ahron’s father! He was Ahron’s brother. He had not given birth to the kohanim. None were his children! It is clear that Gershonides’ statement is not to be understood literally. Instead, Gershonides is explaining an important concept underlying the selection of the kohanim to serve in the Temple. The kohanim were not chosen simply because they are the descendants of Ahron. Neither was Ahron selected purely on the basis of his own merit. Ahron was chosen because he was Moshe’s brother. Similarly, his descendants are kohanim not merely because Ahron is their ancestor. They are descendants of Moshe’s brother. This relationship is essential to their status as priests. Gershonides is explaining that Moshe is the father of the institution of priesthood. Without him, Ahron would not have merited to be selected as Kohen Gadol. Neither would his children be kohanim. This explains the basis of Moshe’s qualification to serve as a kohen. He was the source of the kohanim’s sanctity. If the kohanim served by virtue of their relationship to Moshe, it follows that Moshe could serve.
Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai HaGRIZ on T’NaCH and Aggadah, Parshat Pekuday. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 457.