Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
I recently had the option of purchasing the same bracelet in either silver or copper. The silver version was more expensive and elegant. There was something compelling, comforting and inviting about the copper. In the end, I settled on three bracelets — two silver to give as gifts and the copper one to keep. (Did I mention this was tzedakah?)
The copper bracelet, I reasoned, would be a great “every day” reminder of the cause to which I had contributed.
That was a few days ago. Two weeks ago, in parshat Terumah, we learned that three precious metals, gold, silver and copper, were to be used in various ways in the construction of the mishkan. The metals were employed according to their relative value. That is, gold, with its great ornamental value, was used to construct the innermost vessels — the ark, the table, the menorah and the incense altar.
Silver, more utilitarian in nature, was used for the sockets, which formed the foundation of the tabernacle, as well as for various sacred implements.
Copper, the least valuable of the three metals, was used for those vessels that were not used for the actual Temple service, but rather to prepare for it — the priests’ laver and washstand, for example, described in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa.
Interesting then, that this week the metals are mentioned in a different order — and in distinctively different ways. Right away, we are alerted to the idea that it’s not the preciousness of the material that counts, but how we choose to use it that ultimately matters.
At the beginning of Ki Tissa, God commands Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel by collecting a half-shekel of silver from each adult. A few verses later God tells Moses, “Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn] from it (Exodus 30:17-19).
And of course, the molten calf was constructed of gold collected by Aaron from the people, afraid and insecure due to Moses’ longer-than-expected sojourn atop Mount Sinai. The idol that emerged (without plan, without any real effort) answered the demand for a physical manifestation of God’s power, protection and presence (Exodus 32:3).
This week, lowly copper has a starring role — especially when compared to the disastrous golden creation. So let’s take a deeper look at copper, beginning with the obvious question: When most of the mishkan vessels were made of gold and silver, why was the washstand built of copper?
According to the midrash, the bronze laver (“bronze” is thought to be a better translation of the Hebrew n’choshet than “copper”) and its stand were fashioned from the bronze mirrors formerly used by the Israelite women in Egypt to help make themselves attractive to their husbands.
What happens, then, when the priests used the copper/bronze washbasin made of mirrors? They would see in their reflections — daily — a reflection of the Divine. The totally functional washbasin thus becomes a powerful instrument of the holy, a means by which the priests —again, daily — would be reminded that they, and all whom they served, were created in God’s image.
I like that even the least valuable metal in the lot has great power. May we be reminded daily — by all of the materials around us, precious and lowly, beautiful and plain, “sacred” and “profane” — that we have holy work to do. We are, after all, reflections of the Divine — in gold, in silver, even in bronze.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)