Mirrors of Faith and Hope
Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )
When the time came to build the Mishkan the people came forward to contribute to its construction, the men and the women alike. The Daas Zekeinim Baalei Hatosefos comments that the women contributed eagerly to the building fund, readily surrendering their gold jewelry for this holy purpose. The men thought that the women would be reluctant to part with their jewelry, but the women proved them wrong.
The Daas Zekeinim, based on the Midrash, goes on to draw a sharp delineation between the men and the women. During the incident of the Golden Calf, the women refused to relinquish their gold jewelry for the construction of the Calf, and the men had to take it from them by force. For the construction of the Mishkan, on the other hand, many men were reluctant to contribute, but the women did so enthusiastically.
For this gallant spirit, the women were rewarded with a special connection to the minor festival of Rosh Chodesh, on which women, but not men, customarily refrain from work (Orach Chaim 417:1).
What is the specific relationship between the contribution of the women and the reward of Rosh Chodesh?
The Shemen Tov offers a beautiful interpretation based on another Midrash. The Torah states (Shemos 38:8), "And he made the washing basin of copper and its stand of copper from the mirrors of the multitudes who thronged the entrance to the Tent of Meeting."
What was the history of these mirrors? The Midrash Shir Hashirim, quoted by Rashi, explains that during the worst times of the Jewish bondage in Egypt the men gave in to despair. They lost hope, and they separated from their wives. What was the point of bringing children into this world if their lot would be endless suffering and misery as slaves of the Egyptians? But the women refused to give up. They had faith that the bondage would end someday, that the Jewish people would be redeemed, that a future of freedom and opportunity awaited any children they would bear even in the darkest hour of their enslavement. And so, the women beautified themselves in front of their mirrors and went out into the fields where their husbands were laboring. Thus beautified and made up, they drew their husbands back to them and convinced them that it would be good to have more children.
The mirrors these women used to make themselves up were the symbol of the survival of the Jewish people. Had it not been for those mirrors, there would not have been any more Jewish children. Therefore, Hashem said, "These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else. Use them to make the washing stand of the Mishkan."
The women were the strong ones among the Jewish people. When the men were ready to surrender to despair, the women were the steady anchor of the people, the ones that kept the faith strong, the ones that never gave up hope, the one that insisted, "We must go on."
When the Mishkan was constructed, the men once again were overcome by depression. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for the Mishkan. The Shechinah would have dwelt among all the people. The entire Jewish encampment would have been its domicile. But the Jewish people fell from grace when they sinned. They were no longer worthy of having the Shechinah among them. From that point on, the encampment would be divided into the Camp of the Shechinah, the Camp of the Levites and the Camp of the Israelites. The Shechinah would dwell in seclusion behind the walls of the Mishkan.
As long as the construction of the Mishkan did not begin, the men held out hope that perhaps there would be a last-minute reprieve. Perhaps things would revert to the way they were, the way they should have been. Perhaps the Shechinah would yet dwell among all the people. But when the construction got under way, the writing on the wall was clear. The damage caused by the sin of the Golden Calf would be everlasting. There would be no reprieve. This was a very depressing thought, and many of the men fell into despair. They could not being themselves to contribute to the Mishkan, to put the nails in their own coffin, so to speak.
But the women, rocks of stability, once again came forward and saved the situation. "This is not a time to despair," they said. "What's done is done, and no matter how much we've lost, it cannot be undone by being depressed. Now is the time to look to the future, to embrace this holy Mishkan enthusiastically, to bring about a renaissance of the Jewish people."
In Egypt, the faith and hope of the women had saved the Jewish people physically. At the construction of the Mishkan, the faith and hope of the women saved them spiritually. It gave them hope to reach for a new closeness with the Master of the Universe. And for this, they were rewarded with a special status regarding Rosh Chodesh.
According to our Sages, Rosh Chodesh, the festival of the new moon, celebrates the concepts of rebirth and renewal. The moon is always waning and waxing. Even in its darkest phase, we know it will once again recover its full illumination. It is the symbol of faith and hope for the Jewish people who also go through cycles of darkness and light. Therefore, it is the Jewish women, who have shown themselves most sensitive to the ideas of faith and renewal, that are most closely connected to the festival of Rosh Chodesh.