VaYakhel 5784 – Vices Into Virtues

D'var Torah | Exodus

Sometimes vices can be virtues. If stubbornness is a vice, stubbornly sticking to principle is a virtue. One need not look any farther than Judaism’s earliest patriarch, Abraham, who stubbornly resisted the polytheism of his day and, instead, championed monotheism. Similarly, the Midrash praises the Israelites in Egypt who refused to surrender to Egyptian culture and would not use Egyptian names or follow the Egyptian style of dress. Consider the trait of selfishness universally condemned as a vice. Yet, as psychologists have come to realize, health care workers need to selfishly reserve time for themselves or else risk the danger of burning out.

Chapter 38 of the book of Exodus hints at another vice that actually was a virtue: vanity. The Torah describes how the wash basin in the Tabernacle was fashioned from the polished brass mirrors of the women who were engaged in the construction project (Exodus 38:8). Ibn Ezra explains that the donation came from pious women who served God and “removed themselves from the world” by refusing to have marital relations and thus had no need for mirrors to ensure their beauty.

However, the Midrash offers an alternative view. The Midrash imagines a dispute between God and Moses on the worthiness of the contribution of mirrors. From Moses’ perspective, mirrors represent human vanity: a concern with one’s physical appearance. And the instrument of a vice is inappropriate for sacred purposes. For God, however, the gift of mirrors was apt. In fact, the Midrash (Tanhuma Pekude 9) has God saying that the gift of mirrors was more precious to Him than all the other contributions.

The reason is simple: by ensuring that they always looked attractive, the Israelite women induced their husbands to cohabit with them and raise up new generations of Israelites. Literally, when husbands and wives saw each other reflected in the mirrors, they drew closer together. The prospect of unending slavery made Israelite men reluctant to father children who would be doomed to death or servitude. Had that attitude prevailed, the future of the Jewish people would have been sacrificed. So it was through their vanity that Israelite women secured the destiny of all Jews.

Part of the genius of the Torah is to look beyond the seemingly obvious and discover more sophisticated layers of meaning. In this case, the difference between vice and virtue is not always clear.

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Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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