Rashi references the Gemara in Zevachim 19b, “They sanctified their hands and feet at the same time. How did they do so? They would place their right hand on their right foot and their left hand on their left foot and sanctify them.”
Next Shabbos we will read in Parshas Vayekhel a second description of the Kiyor. (38:8) “He made the copper Laver… from the mirrors of the legions who massed at the entrance of the Ohel Moed.”
Rashi references the Medresh Tanchumah that explains the story of the mirrors. The mirrors were donated for the building of the Mishkan by the “legions of women” whose extraordinary courage and devotion was greatly responsible for the exodus from Egypt. The Tanchumah relates that the Egyptians hoped that the oppressive persecution would greatly diminish the intimate desires of the Jewish men and women. However, the Jewish women went to great lengths to keep their husbands interested despite their mutual exhaustion and depression. The Medresh relates that the women would beautify themselves using polished copper mirrors, pack picnic baskets for their husband’s dinners, and go to the fields where the men were working. They would then steal their husbands away “and entice them to continue normal family life.” (See ArtScroll Stone Edition pg.527) The determination and devotion of the Jewish wives resulted in “legions of Jewish children being born.”
When Moshe asked for the nation to donate materials for the building of the Mishkan the women came to Moshe “in mass” and piled up the very same mirrors that they had used to make themselves desirable as donations of copper for the construction of the Mishkan. Moshe was at first reluctant to accept the mirrors because they had been used for the purpose of physical intimacy; however, G-d told him, “Accept them! Their donation is more beloved to me than anything else already given. Through their use the women established legions of children while in Egypt!” Those same mirrors were used for the construction of the Kiyor. Note that the Torah does not give any dimensions for the Kiyor’s design. The Ibn Ezra explains that all the mirrors had to be used for the Kiyor no mater how large the Kiyor would then be; therefore, the size could not be predetermined.
The purpose of the Kiyor was for the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before entering the Mishkan / Bais Hamikdash and starting the Avodah. The penalty for not washing was death. That made the Kiyor a very serious component of the Kohain’s preparation.
Why was the Kiyor so important in Kohanim preparing to do the Avodah? Why was there a penalty of death for the Kohanim not washing their hands and feet? Why did they have to wash their hands together, one on top of the other? In what way were the mirrors significant in the Kohanim’s preparation for the Avodah? In last week’s Rabbi’s Notebook I briefly reviewed the significance of clothing.
In previous issues of the Rabbi’s Notebook we have discussed the importance of clothing as a correction for Adam and Chava having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So long as they listened to the word of G-d the human creature was apart and distinct from all other creatures by virtue of his inner sanctity, devotion, and willful subjugation to G-d. There was no reason for clothing. The human was distinct because G-d had given them the ability to willfully serve Him. As soon as the humans gave in to their natural and animalistic desires for “that which was good for eating and a delight to the eye” they reduced themselves to the level of animal by doing what they wished to do rather than that which G-d had commanded. Therefore, they became no different than any other of G-d’s creatures. Therefore, G-d imposed on the humans an external means for distinguishing themselves from the rest of creation. Clothing became the external manifestation of what had otherwise been “the internal dignity of true royalty.” (Rabbi’s Notebook, Titzaveh, Volume 7 Issue 33 ? 2/23/02)
Theoretically, the human creatures should have never had to cover themselves in clothing. Our spiritual essence as free willed servants of G- d should have been evident in the manner of our devotion to G-d and each other. The need for clothing to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world would not have been necessary. However, because humankind sinned, G- d imposed clothing as external proof of our divine designation and mission. When we wake up in the morning, adorn ourselves in garments, and make the blessing “He Who clothes the naked,” we should understand and accept that we are G-d’s chosen ones, chosen to willfully emulate Him and serve Him. We should feel that clothing drapes us in divine dignity and purpose.
The Kohanim were the chosen among the chosen of the chosen. Humanity was chosen to be apart from the animal kingdom and by willfully serving G-d lend purpose and meaning to all of creation. The Jews were chosen from among the other nations as role models of what G-d’s intention was when He created humans “In His image and form” so that creation would have meaning and purpose. Following the Golden Calf, the Kohanim were chosen from among the Jews as role models of how to integrate sanctity and purpose into all physical and spiritual aspects of life, thereby lending meaning and purpose to creation. That means that the Kohanim represented all of humanity when they served in the Mishkan / Bais Hamikdash.
The Mishkan / Bais Hamikdash was a microcosm of the world that should have been if Adam and Chava had not sinned in Gan Eden. It represented a world filled with sanctity. It represented a world of devotion and service to G- d. It represented a world filled with meaning and purpose.
The Kohanim were the symbolic humanity filling the world with willful service to G-d. They represented a humanity that had not sinned in Gan Eden. They represented a humanity singularly committed to accepting the law of G-d. They represented Adam and Chava before eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They represented a humanity whose inner sanctity and purpose was evident in every thought, word and deed. They represented a humanity that was distinguished from the animal kingdom by virtue of their being “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” They represented a humanity that should have never had to be covered in clothing.
Before entering the Mishkan / Bais Hamikdash / microcosm of a sinless world, the Kohanim were commanded to wash their hands and feet. Bending over and placing their hands on top of their feet the Kohain would look up and see his face reflected in the polished copper surface of the Kiyor. In so doing, the only three unclothed parts of his body would be the center of his attention. The Kohain would then have to take stock with himself.
“Am I ready to enter the perfect setting of G-d’s home, the place where His presence resides? Am I ready to represent humanity in its theoretically pristine potential for serving the Creator? Can I extend myself back in time to Gan Eden and accept that the sole purpose for existing is to serve and safe keep G-d’s Torah, G-d’s law, and thereby G- d’s universe? Am I being propelled by ulterior motives and ambitions? Am I searching for honor in the face of the nation or humility in the face of G- d? Do I recognize that my designation was by imposition not personal election? Is my heart and mind one with each other in facilitating the devotional and personal needs of my nation and world?
True, I am draped in the devotional vestments of priesthood. I stand adorned in Divine purpose and dignity. But, am I ready to leave aside appearances and become the true servant of G-d willfully doing His commandments without thought or desire for anything but His will? As I bend over in humility and supplication to sanctify my naked hands and feet I look into my own face and ask myself, ‘Do I see the face of self- centered me, or do I see the face of G-d’s servant radiating inner sanctity and purpose like the face of Moshe our Teacher?’
At the same time I see reflected in the polished surface of the Kiyor the courage and devotion of the Bnos Yisroel (daughters of Israel) of old who knew that the purpose of their existence was beyond themselves. Truly they were the Daughters of Royalty whose inner dignity was self-evident in the most trying of times. They were like Chava before the sin whose every action reflected a partnership with Adam and G-d in creating the next generation. Physical beauty, sensuality, personal pleasure, desire and all “that was good for eating and a delight to the eye” were tools for greater devotion and service to G-d rather than self-indulgence and want.
If I am ready to enter G-d’s home with the proper intent and humility, I symbolically wash my naked hands and feet in preparation for serving G-d and the people. However, if I am not ready to devote myself to the absolutes of G-d’s intended world and sanctify my body and soul to His service, I, like Adam and Eve before me, know that “on the day I eat of the forbidden fruit I shall surely die.”
This week, in addition to the regular Parsha, we read the section known as Parah. The additional sections of Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Chodesh are read prior to Pesach for both commemorative and practical reasons. Shekalim, the first additional section, dealt with the 1/2 Shekel and the public sacrifices. The reading of the second section, Zachor, facilitated our fulfillment of the Mitzvah to remember the evil of Amalek. The two sections of Parah and Chodesh are directed toward our preparations for Pesach.
For Parshas Parah, we read the section found in the beginning of Chukas known as Parah. It discusses the necessary steps that had to be followed for the removal of impurity caused by contact with a dead body. The process involved a seven day period during which the impure – Tameh person underwent a process involving the ashes of the Red Heifer. The process was facilitated by a Kohain, and had to take place in Yerushalayim.
Being Tameh restricted a person from entering into the Temple compound and / or participating in certain select activities. Although the restrictions are less applicable today because we do not have the Bais Hamikdash; nevertheless, it is incumbent upon all people, male and female, to keep these laws to the degree that they do apply.
In the time of the Bais Hamikdash it was required of every male adult to visit the Bais Hamikdash and offer a sacrifice a minimum of three times a year: Pesach, Shavuot, and Succoth. However, it was even more important to be there on Erev Pesach to sacrifice the Korban Pesach – Pascal Lamb. Anyone Tameh from contact with a dead body had to undergo the process of the Parah Adumah – the Red Heifer, to remove the Tumah and be permitted to bring his Pascal Lamb to the Bais Hamikdash.
The Talmud tells us that the furthest point in Israel from Yerushalayim was a two weeks travel. If so, a Tameh person living two weeks travel time away from Yerushalayim required a minimum of three weeks to travel to Yerushalayim and go through the one week process of the Red Heifer enabling him to bring the Korban Pesach. Therefore, Chazal ordained the reading of Parah on the week before the reading of Chodesh (approx. 3 to 4 weeks before Pesach) as a public reminder to those who are Tameh that they must immediately arrange to get to Yerushalayim so that they can purify themselves in time to bring the Korban Pesach.
Haftorah Parah – Yechezkel 36:16
This week’s Haftorah reflects the reading of Parshas Parah. Yechezkel, the prophet, berated the people for their defection away from G-d. Their behavior defiled Eretz Yisroel rendering them unfit to remain within her boundaries. Therefore, the Jews had to be exiled from their land and dispersed among the nations. The exile and the consequent suffering while in exile would serve as a process purification process for the nation. In essence, the exile would be a national Parah Adumah – Red Heifer.
Central to the theme of the Haftorah is the fact that G-d ultimately redeems the nation, “for His own sake.” While in exile the Jews are able to spread the word of G-d and teach His existence to the other nations; however, exile will also take its toll on the Jews. The Jews interaction with other nations will result in furthering the very defection that caused G-d to first punish the nation.
Among the mysteries of the Parah Adumah is the fact that the Kohain who administers the ashes becomes impure while the recipient of the ashes becomes pure. In essence this is the experience of the Jew in exile. The Jews have brought knowledge and understanding of G-d to the nations wherein which they were exiled, while at the same time suffering terrible persecution and assimilation through their association with the non-Jewish world. The nations have become pure while the Jews have become impure.
In the end G-d will redeem the nation and gather them in from the four- corners of the earth, “for His own sake.” The time will come when the purpose of the Jew in exile will have been fulfilled. Then, there will be no further reason for the Jew to remain among the other nations and G-d will renew His covenant with the Bnai Yisroel and return them to Eretz Yisroel.
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA and Assistant Principal of YULA.