And they made the laver of copper out of the mirrors of the women who trooped to the opening of the Tent of Meeting.
— Exodus 38:8
The women weren’t eager to give up their mirrors, but the copper was essential. The Israelites had the gold and silver they’d taken from the Egyptians as God had ordered. They assumed it was wages for their years of slavery. When the men learned the precious metals weren’t for their own use but were to be turned into plating for the altar and gold threads for the priestly vestments, their disappointment quickly became enthusiasm for the great collective endeavor of making a place for God in their midst. The women, too, accepted the loss of their gold and silver ornaments, for life in the wilderness left no time for bracelets, nose rings and anklets. But the mirrors were more than expensive baubles.
The mirrors the Israelite women brought with them from Egypt were magic mirrors that retained all images reflected in them. As she grew old, a woman could observe her face’s aging when she gazed into a basin of water, but looking into her copper mirror, she could see her face when she was young. Looking at her husband, she could see his wrinkles and gray hair, but looking at her mirror she could see him in his prime. In the polished copper, images would come to the surface and submerge, and the mirror’s entire history would eventually float before your eyes.
In the days of slavery, these mirrors had been responsible for helping the nation endure Pharaoh’s decrees. Working at building pyramids from first light to last, the men were in no condition for love. They’d return exhausted; their nights were for oblivion and their days for labor. But the foremen granted an hour of rest when the sun was high, when even they couldn’t stand in the sun, and then the Israelite women would visit their men, bringing something to eat, something to drink and their mirrors.
When her husband had wolfed his bread with onions and gulped his water, his wife would clean him off, smooth his hair and hold up the mirror. She’d prod the muscles of his arm with her fingers, he’d perk up, she’d tease, he’d respond, they’d look in the mirror and were lovers. And the mirrors remembered this too.
The laver was made by melting the mirrors and turning them into a huge, highly polished bowl. In this bowl the priests who performed the daily sacrifices washed their hands and feet twice daily. Washing at the copper basin, the priests had a glimpse of the constantly changing display of images. What they saw wasn’t always beauty; some images were of ugliness, some of anger, some of pain. But most were of women adorning themselves for love, with an occasional fragment of passion.
Each priest had only a moment at the basin, for God’s service was kept to a strict schedule. The ablutions accomplished, the basin was covered to keep the water free of unclean insects. A moment in the morning and a moment in the evening were all the priest had. Mostly he saw things that lifted his heart, and entered the Tent to perform the ritual in the mood appropriate for serving the God of Israel. Entering His private room, the priest served the bread and poured the wine and then performed the sacrifice and sprinkled the blood, Israel’s act of love, renewing daily the marriage begun at Sinai.
The women at first resented the loss of their mirrors, but once the daily ritual was established, they became enthusiasts, for they loved weddings. Every morning and every evening, they trooped to the court of the Tent to watch the priest washing, to see him enter and to greet him when he emerged as they’d greet a bridegroom from the chupah, ululating with the joy of Israel’s intimate union with its God.
Raymond P. Scheindlin is the author of several books on medieval Hebrew poetry and of a verse translation of Job.