Shabbat Greetings

The presence of social media and now, artifical intelligence (AI), I am sensing that it is becoming harder to find the right balance between appropriate self-esteem, tending to our physical well-being, on the one hand,  and becoming obsessed with our appearance, on the other hand.   It’s easy to become judgmental of how much, or, how little time people spend tending to their bodies.  We like to think that we should be mostly concerned with our spiritual health and intellectual and emotional growth, yet, and, we know that without a minimal physical foundation we will never move forward.

This theme emerges in our Torah portion, Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20). The portion focuses on the details connected to the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). We read: “Bezalel made the laver of copper and its pedestal of copper, with the mirrors of the women who congregated at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (38:8)  According to Rashi (medieval biblical commentator), Moses was reluctant to accept the donation of these mirrors, the mirrors that the women chose to donate, which he associated with trivial vanity.  Moses did not think that mirrors were an appropriate material from which to craft the holiest objects.

My colleague, Rabbi Bonnie Koppel adds, “I can’t help but wonder what Moses would have thought of the current obsession with “augmented reality.”  More than ten years ago, “selfie” became the word of the year, and now Tik Tok’s Bold Glamour filter can made anyone look like the perfect super-model.  How does Tik Tok define what is perfect?  Big eyes, small nose, large lips, and perfect skin.  Lots of expertly applied makeup.  It makes the “touch up my appearance” feature on Zoom look tame!”

What is frightening is that the desire for the perfect appearance is manifesting itself as an unwillingness to engage in real life where, let’s face it, we can’t possibly live up to some artificial and unattainable standard.  Our digital selves outshine our actual shelves, and that makes us radically uncomfortable. Therefore, many are choosing to simply not appear in public.

So how does Moses learn to make his peace with the mirrors?  Rashi comments, “The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors which they would look into when they would beautify themselves.  Yet they willingly donated them to build the Mishkan.  But Moses rejected them because they were, in his eyes, made for accomplishing the ends of the evil Inclination. God told Moses: “Accept them, because these are the most precious to Me of all, for by means of them, the women established many legions of offspring in Egypt.” When their husbands would be exhausted by the labor imposed on them by the Egyptians, the women would bring food and drink, and feed their husbands.  Then the women would take the mirrors, and each one would view herself with her husband in the mirror and entice him with words, saying, “I am handsomer than you.” (Talmud Sotah 11b)

In other words, were it not for those mirrors and the women leveraging them to flirt with the men, the Israelites might have ceased to exist.  They might have been so beaten down by slavery that they had no energy and no will to propagate! It was the women and their creative use of these very same mirrors who saved the day.

With the focus these weeks in our Torah readings on the priestly vestments, no one can argue that clothing, that appearances, are not important.  We learn from the emphasis on dressing in a manner appropriate to the activity, on the holiness of mirrors, that like everything else in life, caring about how we look can be a blessing or a curse. 

Moses thought that the mirrors were just a symbol of vanity.  He was wrong.  A healthy sense of self-esteem and a concern for looking good, are reasonable and important.  We learn from this that it is okay to care about how we look, within limits.  Like anything else, our appearance should not become an end in itself.  Yet, we need to look below the surface and not make judgments based solely on appearance. 

In a world that is more and more focused on appearance, we can understand Moses’ hesitation about accepting the donation of mirrors.  Vanity, that is, thinking we are better than others, is never okay.  But a bit of healthy self-esteem, recognizing that we are certainly no worse or no less worthy- that is a good thing that we all can learn from this week’s portion.