We are all capable of achieving greatness

Parashat Vayakhel

Ex. 35:1-38:20

“Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” These familiar words are emblazoned on the bottom of the passenger side mirror of every car sold in the United States and serve as an important reminder to the driver as they try to keep perspective.

It is precisely these kinds of mirrors that were used to create the vessel in the Mishkan. As we read in Parshas Vayakhel:

He made the copper tub and its copper stand, with the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance to the tent of meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

Rashi explains that these mirrors had an intriguing history. It was these mirrors that Egyptian women used to make up and beautify themselves for their husbands hoping to conceive. Despite the danger of giving birth in Egypt during government-mandated infanticide, these heroic women insisted on doing their part to secure the future of the Jewish people.

Rashi also describes that Moshe was initially put off by the idea that such elements should be incorporated into the construction of the vat. They seemed out of place, at odds with the hallowed atmosphere of the Mishkan.

But Gd insists. Not only will these mirrors be present in the most sacred sites, but they will be used to shape the very object that serves to sanctify the Cohanim before their daily service. And the lesson passed on is powerful.

On the one hand, the Cohanim are meant to live a life of their own as they become the most sanctified members of Jewish society. They do not receive any ancestral plots in the land and are not involved in agriculture or other occupations as their fellow citizens would be.

And yet, the priestly way of life is by no means a monastic way of life. A Kohen is expected to marry and raise children like everyone else. He will have a house, dine with his family and attend parent-teacher conferences. Despite everything that makes the Kohen different, his life is still eminently relatable to the average Jew.

When those we admire become too distant, they no longer serve as true role models. If I cannot identify with the spiritual successes of the Kohen, his life does not open the way for me to follow. If spirituality is only attained by someone who lives a life radically different from mine, then that is an expectation that I no longer need to be encumbered with.

A few years ago, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, met a group of American teenagers who were attending a summer program in Israel. The Rosh Yeshiva asked the group, “Anyone here from Chicago? A number of hands drawn in the air. “Anyone going to Ida Crown?” Most of those hands stayed up. “Anyone on the basketball team?” A handshake remained up. The Rosh Yeshiva added, “Me too.”

And so the Cohen cleanses himself with a tub made of mirrors – objects used by women to maintain family life despite great challenges. In doing so, we remind ourselves not to indulge in the pursuit of greatness. Don’t fall into the trap of apologizing by saying, “Sure, the Cohen can do that, but he’s different.” Maybe he’s not so different after all. The people in the mirror are closer than they appear.

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