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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, and Mismatched Lovers.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus penned an excellent essay called “Sex and Holiness,” in which she leaves her readers with the fascinating question: What is “holy” sex?
There is an incredibly illuminating commentary in this week’s Parsha, Vayakhel-Pikudei, that speaks volumes to Judaism’s approach to sexuality and the notion of “holy” sex.
The Jewish people had been commanded to build the Tabernacle, which would serve as G-d’s headquarters, His divine abode, and the place from which He would interact with His people. The Jews’ enthusiasm was remarkable; within a very short period they donated all of the materials required for the construction of the Tabernacle, to the point that Moses had to tell them to stop – there was simply too much.
One of the Tabernacle’s vessels was the “Kiyor,” a washing apparatus from which the men of the priesthood would wash their hands and feet each morning, prior to commencing that day’s divine service. The commandment was for the Kiyor to be constructed from copper. Here’s what happened:
And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the “Ma’arot Hatzov’ot”- the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
The Midrash, along with virtually all of the major commentaries, explain the significance of these donated mirrors.
Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they beautified themselves. Even these mirrors they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan.
However, Moses rejected them because they were made for the evil inclination [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts].
The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions in Egypt.”
For when their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors and each one would view herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands’ desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song of Songs, 8:5).
This is the meaning of what is בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹבְאֹת – “the mirrors of those who set up legions.”
This Midrash is extraordinary in multiple respects.
Even then, a woman’s mirror played an important role in her boudoir. With it, she would examine herself, groom herself, and beautify herself for the purpose of inspiring her husband’s lust. However, when Moses announced that he was collecting materials for the Tabernacle, the women immediately gathered all of the materials that they possessed – their precious stones, their jewelry, and even their mirrors, these tools of intimacy – and brought them to Moses to be used in constructing G-d’s house.
Moses rejected the gift of mirrors. Moses himself, who separated from his wife so that he could be available to communicate with G-d at only a moment’s notice (as we discussed here), may not have had much of a personal appreciation for lust that a mirror is designed to help a woman cultivate. He had no issue with women using mirrors in general; he just did not want the mirrors implemented in the Tabernacle. Moses’s reaction may seem overly prudish for those of us who are more “sex-positive” in our way of thinking, but it reflects a very real tension that has pervaded our approach to sex throughout the ages.
Sex is great. Holy, even. But is it holy like Sefer Torah is holy? Or is it more of a base kind of holiness. How many of us would consider a shul as an appropriate place for sex? I suspect that most are not even comfortable having sex in in the Succah (even though that is something encouraged by Halacha as we discussed here (and by Shosha Pearl, as she eloquently discusses here). So even though we pay lip service to the holiness of sex, and we applaud marital lust without even the slightest bit of guilt, we still tend to treat sex as though there is something “unholy” about its holiness. And thus developed, over the centuries, in apparent Mosaic fashion, a sense that sex is not really holy enough to join the Holy Boys’ Club. Today we are expressly discouraged from having sex in the presence of a Sefer Torah or Tefillin “unless they are removed or placed into a container, and that container placed into a second container which is not specific to them.” Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah, 4:24. So sex in a shul would probably not be halachically sanctioned.
And there’s something to it, isn’t there? Sex certainly can be holy if everyone’s intentions are pure and directed towards Heaven. We can certainly agree that sexual intimacy between a married couple has a holy aspect. Yet… there is nothing inherently holy in feeding our lust, our vanity and our baser impulses. After all, what is more holy: self-control or self-indulgence? So sex is complicated; it is a holy act that is innately pleasurable, and yet it arouses (and indulges) thirsts, passions and urges that do not necessarily stem from a holy place, and that do not necessarily lead to a holy place. So calling sex “holy” can sometimes be like affixing a hechsher or a kosher symbol to a moving target. It’s holy here, and like this, but not here or like this. Thus, it is understandable that our leaders have championed self-restraint; and it’s understandable that, due to the power and complexity of sex and the chemical, psychological and emotional responses that it elicits, they may have erred on the side of constraint, inhibition, and a more sex-negative stigma.
G-d, however, insisted on the mirrors. He was not offended by the sex, by the vanity, by the lust. In fact, He said, “these are more precious to Me than anything”! From His omniscient perspective, He looked at the big picture. Look what came of the sexual play and frivolity that these mirrors enabled – “through them the women set up many legions in Egypt!” Do we need to be cognizant of the weaknesses in our character? Of course. Do we need to maintain control and vigilance over our impulses? Of course. But G-d? He loves when we love, when we have sex, when we frolic, when we go at it like rabbits, when we go at it with rabbits (the vibrating kind, of course)…
G-d singled out the mirrors used by Jewish women to arouse the lust in their flagging husbands as His favorite donation of all, and commanded that they be installed in His sanctuary – the symbol of His own union with us, His eternal bride.