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Jewish World Review
March 19, 2004
/26 Adar, 5764
Is intimacy holy? For whom?
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
What a seemingly odd phrase in this week's Torah portion teaches humanity about the sanctity of marriage and family
The late chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Yaakov Bezalel Zolti (1919-1982), died suddenly. He wasn't ill, he wasn't old. He had a very regal bearing, added to a very sharp mind. I never saw anyone whose very presence commanded so much respect. Since I had been ordained by him, I paid a shiva call to the mourners.
In his apartment, the one empty chair was next to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the towering Sefardic Torah scholar. In the 1960s, Rabbis Yosef, Zolti and Yosef. S. Eliashiv had served together on the Israeli chief rabbinate's high court. Rabbi Yosef was comforting the family by recalling Rabbi Zolti's abilities.
Rabbi Zolti, said Rabbi Yosef, had a powerful, perceptive and persuasive personality. He was a good listener, and he was decisive. Various divorce cases, for example, had dragged on for years. In countless instances Rabbi Zolti brought the parties together in one room people who may not have spoken to each other for years went through the issues and got the parties to settle, literally in an hour.
Said Rabbi Yosef: When Rabbi Zolti became the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, he inherited thousands of unresolved cases. The docket was backed up for years. When Rabbi Zolti died only a few years later, he left a docket dealing only with current cases. He had a tremendous talent in to cutting through rhetoric and emotion to make things whole for all concerned.
Justice delayed is justice denied. Divorce and dispute are painful enough; delay can be unbearable. The Torah had its own way of dealing with potential divorce cases, a ritual that went into abeyance more than 2,500 years ago, with the destruction of the First Temple. The point remains the same: Marriage is as holy as the Temple.
Media reports inundate us with news of illegal marriages performed by various municipal authorities. Perhaps it is pertinent to remind ourselves just what the Torah's attitude is toward intimate relationships, and for whom they are reserved.
This week's Torah portion contains an odd phrase. Bezalel made all of the sacred objects that filled the ancient Tabernacle constructed in the desert of Sinai. Among these objects was the laver. "And he [Bezalel] made the laver of copper and its base of copper, with legions of mirrors" (Exod. 38:8).
What are "legions of mirrors"?
Drawing on Rashi and other commentators, such as ibn Ezra, we learn:
Jewish women brought their mirrors, made of copper, to Bezalel. Unlike the other sacred objects in the Tabernacle, the Torah specified no measurements for the laver. Bezalel used every woman's mirror.
Moses objected to the use of these mirrors. They were inappropriate, he said, since they had been used to incite lust in Egypt. Jewish male slaves came home from work, beaten, exhausted, without strength for intimate relations with their wives. The women fancied themselves before their mirrors and positioned them so that their husbands would see. In this way the women using the mirrors as a tool guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people.
It was these very mirrors that the ancient Jewish women brought to Bezalel. He was to make a sacred object out of material that had been used to encourage intimate relations. Moses objected. A sacred object should not be made of such material! The two holiness and marital relations contradict each other.
G-d overruled even the great Moses. These mirrors should be accepted, said G-d; not only that, these mirrors were the most precious of all the materials supplied for the sacred objects in the Tabernacle. And all of the mirrors (the "legions" of mirrors) had to be used. So said G-d. The laver would have to be as big as the total smelted copper that the women's mirrors yielded.
The message is clear: Not only are holiness and marital relations not contradictory; they are, in a sense, the same. However, the holiness of intimate relations is, like all holiness, restricted, in this case to a man and a woman who are married. Outside that, intimate relations do not partake of holiness.
The laver had two purposes. The priests (kohanim) washed their hands and feet with water from the laver before they performed their sacred service. The water of the laver was also used to reestablish trust between a husband and a wife accused of adultery.
This process of trust, which falls under the general title "Sotah," is dealt with in Numbers 5:11-31. In those verses, the laver is identified twice. It provides the water for the ritual described there. The laver is essential for the process of reestablishing trust between husband and wife.
The connection is clear. The raw material the copper mirrors by which Jewish women in Egypt initiated relations and sustained their marriages, became the laver, which made it possible for a quarreling husband and wife to return to each other. The deeper connection is the holy one between them.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. To comment, please click here.
© 2004, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg