They did not speak above a whisper. Outside the clearing, Julia said, it was better to go quietly. Presently they had reached the edge of the little wood. She stopped him…. He wondered whether after all there was a microphone hidden somewhere near…. Perhaps at the other end of the instrument some small, beetle-like man was listening intently— listening to that. But by degrees… he stopped thinking and merely felt. The girl’s waist in the bend of his arm was soft and warm. He pulled her round so that they were breast to breast; her body seemed to melt into his…. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act…. When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that.
1984. George Orwell Chapter 2
In the midst of State oppression and denial, it is an act of physical love that becomes the ultimate form of resistance in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’. The lovers, battling against the overwhelming power of The Party, snatch moments of transcendence in one another’s arms. Subjugated and controlled, they seek opportunities of self-determination consistently denied them by the ruling powers under which they live.
Their clandestine lovemaking rejects everything that The Party is seeking to achieve. Their rejection of the power of A.N. Other to determine their fate and control their destinies is a revolutionary act. It is a definitive act of transformation. Through their secretive lovemaking they become the authors of their own lives, wresting control away from the powers – The Party – that seek to dictate the trajectory of their days. For theirs is a living death, a life in which freedom, and volition have been systematically stolen, replaced by an existence of servitude and compulsion.
Hidden among the details of the decoration of the Mishkan in this week’s parashah we find hints of a very similar story.
Among the list of precious materials brought by the Israelites to decorate the Mishkan we find the bronze mirrors of the ‘women’s working force’. The bronze of these mirrors is used to make the lavers – the bowls – in which the priests will wash their hands and feet before entering the Mishkan – the House of God. And without the act of first washing their hands and feet, their first steps into God’s presence would simply not be possible, for the priests would die. Thus we should not make the mistake of thinking of this washing bowl as being a simple vessel with a humble purpose. Without it the priests would be forever marooned outside of the Tent of Meeting unable to enter. Their and consequently the people’s meeting with God would be suspended and the affirmation of the life giving Presence of the One would be denied. The story of the Israelites would have been a very different tale had the priests been unable to first wash their hands and feet.
But why were the laver and its stand to be made of the mirrors of the women? The Torah does not elaborate; we are simply told that the mirrors are used to make the bowl and stand. We must turn to the midrash to discover the power of the mirrors of the women who worked at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
We are accustomed to think of mirrors as instruments of vanity. Frequently associated with preening and prettying, their use is frequently considered to be the first step in a ritual of getting oneself ready for contact with a mate. It appears that Moses also thought of the mirrors in this fashion.
We are told that when Moses heard that the women had brought their mirrors he ordered that they be chased away and their legs broken with sticks (!) such was the imprudence of bringing items of vanity and sexual immorality to adorn God’s House.
When Moses calls for them to be chased away and punished, God intervenes and tells Moses not to be so hasty. These mirrors He tells Moses, are the instruments with which hatzov’ot – (‘the serving women’) raised up the ‘hosts’ (‘tzeva’ot’) in Egypt. The midrash is not explicit, however, about the meaning of ‘hosts’ and we are left to wonder if this means the assembly and/or the military might of the people who later form the exodus from Egypt.
Why does God chastise Moses? Unlike the earrings that were used to make the Golden Calf, the mirrors are not seen by the midrash as being instruments of simple vanity unsuitable to be used in Divine worship. Whilst the earrings of the people, indeed ornaments of vanity, became the material that was used for the worship of an idol, this was not so for the mirrors of the women.
So how were the mirrors used? What was it that made them so special?
They were used to incite rebellion.
They were a tool of revolution that sought to overturn Pharaoh’s decree subjugating the Israelites through the fracture of the family and their humanity.
Pharaoh decreed that the Israelite men were to be subjected to harsh labour and not sleep at home; the women however would take food and drink out to the fields to their husbands. Sitting down next to their men folk after they had shared their meal together, they would take their mirrors and begin to flirt with their husbands – men who were being subjected to back breaking labour and isolation. Looking into the mirrors the women would tease saying, “I am surely more lovely than you!” And their husbands replying “No! I am more lovely than you!” would continue the game of tease back and forth. Soon the weariness of their labour was forgotten and the couples would make love, forging links of intimacy that Pharaoh was attempting to deny them.
The women used these mirrors with their lovers to reflect back to one another a different reality. A reality that transcended the harshness of their current circumstances. The mirrors were used to elicit dreams of an alternative truth, a truth that declared that they were other than that which Pharaoh had decreed. They were not slaves, mere beasts of burden stripped of their humanity. They were instead lovers who had declared war against the status quo. Their weapon was the insistence of holding onto a life together, however tenuous.
The physical act of love that took place in the fields, was an act of reclamation. Theirs was a reclamation of their right to author their own story. The women who took their mirrors to the fields understood that their story was bigger than the one that Pharaoh had set out for them. Theirs was a story of physical love and connection. It included pleasure that transcended the mundane actions of moment to moment subsistence. A story that fought for a future where they were the authors.
Their act of revolution was to procreate, to defy the despair and hopelessness set out for them by those seeking to defeat them, instead writing a love story of hope that transcended the suffering meted out by someone more powerful.
The women used their mirrors to launch a rebellion that put humanity and connection at the very centre. It was an act that washed away the detritus of hopelessness – just as the Priests washed away the dirt from their feet.
LBC Rabbinic student Kath Vardi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.