A Community of Vision

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tuvy Miller

As the Torah nears the end of describing the mishkan’s construction, it briefly includes a description of the kiyor (38:8):

 וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

And he made the basin and base of brass, [out] of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (JPS 1917 ed. with slight modifications)

This  description raises several problems, perhaps the first being that much of this information is missing from the original command to build the kiyor in 30:17-21. There, the Torah spends a few words describing the construction and instead focuses much more on the kiyor’s actual function. But perhaps much more troubling than that is the exact explanation of this particular verse here. To whom, or what, does the text refer in the latter half of the verse? It is unclear what exactly is being described and what significance it has for developing a deeper understanding of the kiyor.

There are two dominant approaches found among the Medieval commentators in explicating this verse. Rashi, following Midrash Tanhuma, proposes that these mirrors were those used by the Jewish women in Egypt as a tool for enticing their husbands and ultimately ensuring that they would have children to perpetuate the nation. Thus, these mirrors were particularly dear to G-d and because they symbolized the possibility of a loving spousal relationship, they merited a place in the kiyor which also played a role in repairing such relationships through the sotah process. Though after a lengthy analysis[1] this suggestion might reveal literary depth, it does not obviously explain the verse in a compelling fashion. The word “tsoveot” most clearly means “those who gathered or served” and refers to what the women were doing in front of the ohel moed, but it seems unlikely that it refers to the “צבאות רבות” that the women birthed in Egypt. Furthermore, it seems strange to so prominently showcase the kiyor’s role in the sotah process when it presumably played a much more central daily role in preparing the priests for worship and should reflect that.[2]

The other main approach to this verse is offered by Ibn Ezra. He surmises that there was a group of women who had abandoned all worldly pleasure and gathered daily in front of the ohel moed to pray to G-d. As a symbol of their commitment to the spiritual, they gave away the mirrors which they had previously used to beautify themselves.[3] While this works better on a textual level in explaining “tsoveot” as “those who gathered,” it seems strange that the women would donate symbols of worldly hedonism to the mishkan when, unlike in Rashi’s construction, the mirrors had not been used for a noble, redeeming purpose beforehand.[4]

In the spirit of a constant search for new meanings in a timeless text, I would like to suggest a different explanation that will perhaps provide interesting material for further thought and discussion. Other than this particular case in Shemot, the word “mar’ot” appears five other times in Tanakh.[5] In each instance, the word clearly refers to the vision that the prophet receives from G-d. Given that this word is used in one way throughout the rest of Tanakh, it seems quite plausible to suggest that it should be read the same way in our section. Therefore, the verse should be understood to mean that the kiyor was constructed from copper as per the command in 30:18, but its form was in accordance with the prophetic vision received by the masses[6] assembled before the ohel moed. It may have been that they were, as Ibn Ezra suggests, people who consistently waited there and engaged in avodat Hashem, or it is possible that they were there contributing to the terumah and received a spontaneous vision.[7]

In this reading, the kiyor stands as a symbol of the central role that the nation plays in creating a metaphysical context in which the mishkan exists. Unlike the other aforementioned readings, this symbolism exists primarily for internal consumption within the mishkan. As the kohanim prepare for their daily service, they must be reminded that they serve, at least in part, as sheluhei didan and that the deep spiritual force inherent within the nation obligates the leadership to cultivate that power and harness it in the service of G-d. Spiritual leaders must be attentive to the unique religious potency that rests with the kelal and strive to give that expression in the daily life of the nation.

 Tuvy Miller is currently a senior at Yeshiva University majoring in English and Jewish History. He enjoys learning Tanakh with a potpourri of close reading, classical parshanut and a healthy dose of Holmesian imagination.

[1] Which is not possible given constraints of this presentation.

[2] For example, see Seforno and Ramban to 30:18-19.

[3] This position stands in opposition to Rashi’s for its ascetic attitude towards beauty and sexuality. This is a dispute that requires further explanation, but is beyond the scope of this discussion.

[4] While it is possible to claim that the mirrors would be metaphysically redeemed through their use in the kiyor, they would still maintain their practical negative symbolism in the eyes of the people and furthermore, it seems strange to place sexual abstinence and asceticism so prominently in the Mishkan.

[5] Bereshit 46:2, Yeheskel 1:1, 8:3, 40:2 and 43:3. The cases in Yeheskel clearly relate to his Merkava visions, while the example from Bereshit is when Ya’akov receives a vision before his descent to Egypt.

[6] Either just women as understood by many commentators, or perhaps men as well.

[7] It should not be surprising that the form of the kiyor was delivered in a vision given that Parashat Terumah contains a constant refrain that tell of Mosheh receiving architectural visions for the various keilim. Furthermore, it is possible that the comments of R. Shimshon of Sens (Sefer haTosafot ha-Shalem, vol. 10, pp. 215) provide at least a partial expression of this reading of “mar’ot”:

לפי שעל הכיור היה מצוייר עליו מעשה מרכבה, ולזה נקרא כיור לשון ציור וכיור

He claims that the word “kiyor” suggests that the image of the Merkava throne-chariot was engraved upon the basin itself. This assumes that prophecy was a necessary component for understanding how to construct the kiyor, though it does not necessarily entail that it was the people who received the vision. It is possible that R. Shimshon bases this on the description of what might be a later version of the kiyor in Melakhim Alef 7:33 and perhaps on the usages of “mar’ot” in describing Yeheskel’s Merkava visions.

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