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Shmot - Vayakel

What is one moment which captures a picture of your resilience in the past two years? Have this question in mind as we learn together.

Our Parasha, Vayakhel is part 4 of a 5 part drama. In parts 1 and 2, God gives detailed instructions for building the Mishkan. In part 3, last week’s parasha Ki Tisa, everything is ruptured with the huge betrayal of the golden calf. Now we have two parshiot, Vayakhel and Pekudei which almost verbatim repeat Terumah and Tetzaveh, except rather than instructions, here we have the description of the work being done. In the leining (which was jolly hard - well done to everyone who learnt it) you will have heard the repeated word va-ya-as - “and he made” talking about Betzalel the master craftsman. Amazingly, God does not speak for this entire parasha. Instead we have the human hands taking over - Moshe, Betzalel and his fellow craftsman Oholiav, and the thousands of Israelite women and men who pitched in with an immense community crafts and building programme.

The parasha starts with a description of enthusiastic donation of materials. People brought what they could - gold, silver and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarn, linen, and goats’ hair, animal skins, oils, acacia wood and precious stones. They brought and brought until there was too much. It was every community’s dream (I might just add here that we’ve just launched a fundraising appeal for a new megillat Esther scroll). And Moshe had to tell them to stop bringing - אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אַל־יַעֲשׂוּ־ע֛וֹד “men and women, don’t do any more!”

So the Mishkan comes together beautifully, just as God had requested. For those who see the Mishkan as an antidote, a tikkun, a fixing, to the building of the Golden Calf, things are looking good.

I want to talk today about one particular piece of Mishkan furniture, the kiyor, the washbasin in which the Cohanim would wash their hands and feet. The instruction to make it includes the line “they shall wash with water, that they may not die” which I remember reading exactly 2 years ago and finding prescient. This week’s line telling us about it’s building reads as follows:

“ He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who amassed - tzevaot - at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד

Who are these women amassing at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting? Why were they giving up their mirrors? And why are we told about it in such specific detail, while with all the other Mishkan furniture we get no such information.

The answer to these questions takes us into the midrash, which can best be described as Fan Fiction, elaborating on tiny details in the text and bringing us imaginative back stories.

As Rashi summarises: The Israelite women possessed mirrors of copper into which they used to look when they adorned themselves. Even these they did not hesitate to bring as a contribution towards the Tabernacle. Now Moses was about to reject them since they were made to pander to their vanity.

So Moshe, making a classic distinction between the spiritual and the physical, wanted to reject these women’s mirrors, which lived in the world of appearance and beauty. But then no less than God steps in with the words

“Accept them; these are dearer to Me than all the other contributions…”

Why? Well that takes us to another midrash, one which rewinds into slavery in Egypt and brings alive what it might have been like to be a slave, so ground down and demoralised that even love between husband and wife felt exhausting and impossible. Even if a couple could find the energy and time to be together, what was the point of bringing another baby into the world to become a child slave, or if he was a boy, to be thrown in the Nile. As a child I was told that my grandmother, born in Germany shortly before the Second World War, was an only child because even though the family made it safely to England, the world felt too insecure a place to welcome more children. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly resonates with the midrashic understanding of the Israelite experience in Egypt. But according to the midrash, the women didn’t give up. It says the following: “For when their husbands were tired through the crushing labour they used to bring them food and drink and induced them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors [the same copper mirrors], and each gazed at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am handsomer than you!” Thus they awakened their husbands’ affection and subsequently became the mothers of many children”

It is hard to imagine a world where love and having children would represent a form of resistance against oppression, but here it is.

So these mirrors were responsible for crowds of children, who are also called tzevaot - born in Egypt. And Now we have an echo in הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד the women crowding at the tent of meeting to donate. And by the way, what a contrast to last week, where a midrash tells us that the women held back from donating their jewellery toward the golden calf. These women have a well-placed sense of when to give!

The mirrors were accepted and were melted down to create a burnished copper washbasin.

And if you visit the Egypt Room in the British Museum, there are copper Egyptian mirrors so we can imagine exactly what was brought to the Mishkan.

What can we learn from this today? The women’s mirror play with their husbands, showing love as resistance, to me is symbolic of what we do at our most resilient. Take a moment to think about the last two years, where we all needed resilience. What was one moment of resilience that you showed? It could have been getting out for yet another muddy walk. It could have been the simple act of getting washed dressed in lockdown, perhaps making contact with the world outside when our worlds shrunk down. For the key workers in the room, your resilience will have looked different again.

And if the kiyor represents bringing that act of love as resilience into the mishkan, it’s a strong statement of saying that resilience has a holiness to it.

Resilience often isn’t our most glorious moment or the moment we want to be seen in public. It’s the hard graft in a tight spot. It’s putting another meal of pasta on the table because you have no imagination or energy for anything else, and yet you’re still feeding your family. It’s getting up for another day looking at the same four walls. It’s staying close to friends who have a very different approach to you on covid regulations. It’s adapting to seeing loved ones on Zoom rather than in person. And then it’s bouncing back when the world allows that.

So to return to that question, what is your moment of resilience from the past two years? And now, like the mirrors being melted into the kiyor, how will you bring that moment into this sanctuary? This minyan, this community welcomes you, whoever you are, whatever your background. We invite you to bring your full self into this room and consider yourself part of the furniture. We are a proudly inclusive community .

One more extraordinary difference about the kiyor, is, as opposed to the other bits of temple furniture, no dimensions are given. No precise description for its length or breadth. Because when you bring your full self into the room, the dimensions need to shift to fit you. And that’s what we aspire to do too - to build our community in response to the people who make it up. So that’s an invitation to join our team, in whatever capacity you’d like, and help to shift the dimensions to look more as you would like them to.

This is the first Shabbat in 2 years when we have had no legal covid regulations. That’s quite something to get your head round. For some, this moment couldn’t come too soon. For others, it is very much too soon. That resilience that we’ve needed for the last two years isn’t redundant now. If anything we’re going to need it more than ever as our world adapts and feels the impact of what it has been through. There will be ongoing concerns, anxieties and shock-waves.

So let me offer you one Jewish tool that might get you through. Washing your hands. Not 20 seconds of singing happy birthday and furiously scrubbing, but several commentators link the daily hand washing we do first thing in the morning with the kiyor. Washing takes us to a new state where we leave one reality behind and begin a new one. We wash hands to transition to the day ahead, prepare to eat bread, some also wash hands to prepare for prayer. So I’d like to invite you to either take up the custom of washing in the morning, or if you already do so, to weave in a new intention. Your washing links you to the cohanim washing in the mishkan, and they’re washing in a basin made up of melted mirrors. Their washing at once connects them to the resilience of the past, how to get through rough times, and at the same time the water invites a new possibility for the future.

Giving to your community until the community has enough, prizing our most resilient moments, bringing our full selves into holy spaces, and welcoming future possibilities - all this is in the kiyor, and hopefully all this is in this community too. Shabbat shalom.

Holy One, Source of Strength,

War has begun, and innocent people are dying.

We ask Your protection for Ukraine and its citizens.

We pray for their safety and the security of the country,

and for the neighbouring countries—Hungary, Poland, and Romania, among others—

that have opened their borders to provide humanitarian corridors

and safe passage for all those who wish to evacuate.

We seek the comfort of believing that everything will be all right,

even in the face of insurmountable odds.

Quiet the fears that threaten to deafen us; grant us Shleimut—

the inner peace we so desperately seek. Help us remain calm and reach out to those in need.

May this horrific situation be diffused swiftly with minimal casualties.

Bless our world leaders with the ability to work together for the greater good,

and the wisdom to make wise decisions during this turbulent time.

Bless the people of all nations with the desire, strength and courage

to create a world based on justice and filled with peace.

May the words of Isaiah 2:4:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation;

neither shall they learn war anymore”

become true in our day-- in this very hour.

Source of Goodness, shine Your healing light on us

and all those in the Ukraine we hold in our hearts.

Shelter us, shield us, show us the path to peace.

And let us say: Amen.


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