Love as Resistance (Parshat Vayakhel)

Commentary on Parshat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20)

“He made the washbasin of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women.” (Exodus 38:8)

Parshat Vayakhel describes the mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary, as filled with beautiful items created from donated materials. Near its entrance stood a copper washbasin, a public fountain with spigots all around for worshipers to purify themselves. We are told that the gleaming copper that made up this fountain came from a special donation – it was constructed from the polished hand mirrors that the Israelite women carried with them out of Egypt.

The Midrash imagines a debate between Moses and God over whether to accept this unusual gift. Moses initially balks at the idea, claiming that it is inappropriate to use mirrors, whose only purpose – he felt – is to stoke human vanity, in the construction of something so holy and pure. Yet, God strongly disagrees, saying: “Accept them; these are dearer to Me than all the other contributions, because through them the women raised many generations in Egypt!” (Rashi on Exodus 38:8, Tanchuma Pekudei 9)

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To what was the Holy One referring? During the worst suffering under Egyptian slavery, the Israelite men gave up on making families. They would sleep in the fields and refuse to go home to their wives. In the depths of their despair, they concluded that the only path was to prevent another generation from being born into similar misery. They lost the ability to conceive of a world different than the world they knew.

Yet, the Midrash recounts, it was the women who refused to give up the hope that the future might be better than the present. They would carry their little mirrors out into the fields, and gently make their husband’s look into the polished surface together. In their shining surfaces, the couples would see their faces reflected back to them, side by side, and remember their love for one another and return home together.

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, the author of the classic Hasidic commentary the S’fat Emet teaches that even “though a person’s body may be enslaved, the soul remains eternally free.” This is what is sometimes referred to as “spiritual resistance,” the courageous refusal to allow even the worst situation to strip away dignity and hope. The mirrors symbolized the women’s insistence that choosing love in a time of darkness is an act of resistance, a redemptive act of bravery whose fruit was the continuation of our people.

I run the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, which is the biggest program in North America for people considering conversion to Judaism. As part of our program, all of our students get the opportunity to hear testimony from a Holocaust survivor. A few weeks ago, after hearing a speaker recount her devastating story, a student raised her hand. She was a young woman, in her mid-20s, and typically quite shy. She shared that she had just concluded a year’s treatment for breast cancer and asked – with tears in her eyes – how the speaker had managed to make a life and build a family after what she had experienced. The older survivor walked over and embraced the younger one, and told her: “You just keep going. This doesn’t stop that. You can still have a beautiful life.”

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Resistance takes many forms. Some are loud and bold and public – the activist engaging in civil disobedience, the prophetic speaker in front of an assembled crowd, the reporter who dares to seek out the truth. Yet, there are daily, subtle acts of defiant hope whose cumulative impact may be just as profound. In our harsh and often cruel world, it is an act of courage to refuse the easy lure of cynicism and despair. Like the women and their mirrors, like the Holocaust survivor who went on to raise three children, like all of us who get up each day and try to make the world a little better, even when we don’t know what it will all amount to – all of that is holy resistance.

I like to think that as the Israelites entered the mishkan, and washed their hands in the pure waters that flowed from the copper basin, that they thought of their mothers and grandmothers whose hopes were realized in them, the generation born in liberty. I like to think that they felt their pride, and felt them urging them on as they continued through their own wilderness, bravely making their way toward a Promised Land.

May their refusal to give up on love inspire us to do the same.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University and a lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.