Yachin and Bo'az in the Contemplative Mirror (Feb 2011)

In Parshas Vayakhel we read of the laver or wash basin which was set up in the forecourt of the Mishkan (Desert Sanctuary). In Haftaras Vayakhel (Sefardi) we read of the great “sea” basin and the two entrance pillars of the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple) of Solomon.

Standing Pillars were an oft-encountered middle Eastern decoration in ancient temples. Wash basins for the use of worshippers in preparatory cleansing rituals; for the cleansing of ritual tools; and for use during sacrificial processes were also very common. Standing mirror-like pools of water were a decoration in many royal places and in temples.

At their most fundamental symbolic level such basins are symbols of cleansing and reflected beauty. Such pillars are symbols of guardianship and act as reminders that the porch of a temple is a place of transition from one level of perception or awareness to another.

In both the Mishkan (desert Sanctuary) and the Mikdash (Holy Temple), the laver was situated in the outer court and was primarily used for the ablutions of the kohanim. The significance of the two pillars is not explained in the text though they are “named” Yachin and Bo’az which may give us some idea of their significance.

Today, I have been reflecting on the significance of these symbols-the two pillars and the mirrors- as pointers in Jewish contemplative practice.

The Mirrors of the Holy Women

We are told in Exodus 38:8 that the laver for the desert sanctuary was donated by the “women who used to gather in prayer” (Onkelos) at a special Tent outside the camp. The place of their prayer is called the “Tent of meeting” (ohel mo-ed). In Parshah Vayakhel we are reading of the future construction of the Sanctuary, and the "Tent of Meeting" (which was the proper name of that Sanctuary) did not yet exist. For this reason, the "Tent of meeting" referred to in Exodus 33 must have been a separate institution and it seems to have been one set up by Moses specifically as a place for personal and communal hitbodedut. We read:

“And Moses took the Tent, and pitched it outside the camp,
far away from the camp, and called it the Tent of Meeting. 
And it came to pass, that every one who sought the Lord 
went out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp.”
Exodus 33:7

This tent of meeting outside the camp (ohel mo-ed asher michutz lamachaneh) is especially significant to us as it had a resident “Dedicated Jewish Contemplative”, namely Joshua who was permanently on contemplative retreat there in his youth as a sort of custodian. (see Exodus 33:11)

Some translations call the women who donated the mirrors: “serving women”, but Ibn Ezra refers to them as “women performing the service of prayer” after the Onkelos text and I am following that reading. We are told that these female “Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives” provided their very own personal mirrors of brass from which the basin and its stand were made.

As Jewish Contemplatives, we are very much looking to Joshua and these “Women of Prayer” for hints as to how we might serve God. Let’s take a look first at the way the offerings for the construction of the Desert Sanctuary were made.

We most certainly cannot thank God enough-but we can do our best to offer our service of prayer with a whole-heart. This week’s parsha gives us some hints as to how we might do this. We are told that the people brought offerings which were the basic materials from which the Sanctuary was to be constructed, furnished, and decorated. The two things which make these gifts special are that they were given freely in accordance with the desire of each individual and that they were so generous that they exceeded what was needed.

The donations are given in a generosity which does not count the cost, and which is motivated not by a hope of reward but out of love of God and His People. This kind of generosity applies both to our own physical or financial gifts to God/the Community (after the example of the Holy Women) and to our own spiritual donations of time and attention (after the spirit of Joshua).

But is there any particular significance to be seen in the specific gift of the mirrors?

It is traditionally and halachically forbidden to pray in front of a wall on which hangs a mirror in which one’s own reflection may be seen. Jewish Contemplatives are not looking at themselves.

 The kind of meditation which someone practices as a self-improvement or leisure activity is related to religious contemplation but it lacks the Jewish mystics’ exclusive focus on God.

 Jewish Contemplatives are working to surrender their self image to God and let Him decide what their personal function or value is, hoping only that they may be of service in whatever way God chooses. They  are, as it were, casting their very selves into the furnace to be re-made for God’s use in the Heavenly Temple. The donations of those desert “Women of Prayer” were born of real personal sacrifice. The aim is that we too should surrender our self image-and with it the flawed mirror of our “worldly” perception- in order to be available to God as a different type of mirror: a reflection of His Presence in this world.

Well, that’s the theory of it all and the hope of it all. But in practice we all know that just as it is impossible for us to reach the fullness of gratitude in thanks to God, so we can never really be so purified and refined in that furnace that we might ever be a true or good reflection of the God we worship. Still the goal is there for us…and our faltering aim is not to be scoffed at. R.Menachem Mendel of Kotsk would have us believe that the search and struggle towards the truth was as valuable as the Truth itself, after all.

The Pillars of Remembrance

The Haftarah reading speaks of two pillars to the right and left of the Temple doorway:

"And he set up the pillars in the vestibule of the temple.
And he set up the right pillar and named it Yachin,
And he set up the left pillar and named it Bo’az."
I Kings 7:21

Yachin –the eternally established foundation and Bo’az- intrinsic strength. 
( I am not translating these terms literally here, just suggesting a symbolic meaning).

Our “eternally established” pillar is the ever-growing and ever-unfolding Torah. Always constant in God’s mind, yet always being expressed in new ways in our midst. And our “intrinsic strength” is the Community itself. The People of Israel.

To one side: Torah,
To the other: the rest of the Community of Israel,
In the Centre: the presence of God.

For us, the three are ever co-existent.
We are alone in our prayerful dialogue with God
but we stand in the presence of the Torah and Israel at all times.

Those two pillars in the temple are not our focus. What “lies between them” is our focus.

In this the pillars resemble the poles of the Sefer Torah too: When the Scroll is on the bimah being read or when it is borne aloft in open display during hagbah, our attention is primarily on the exposed text in the centre. The rest of the Torah scroll text is concealed as it is wound around the left and right wooden “pillars”. Though the “letters” there are concealed, they are always “present” during the reading or the display of the central text. This is not so far fetched an analogy as it might at first seem, for I think that this resonance may be heard in another text relating to the Sefer Torah:

“Length of days are in her right hand
and in her left hand are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to all who grasp her,
And happy is everyone who holds her fast.”
Proverbs 3:16-18

We never lose the awareness of the Community or the remembrance of the Torah’s covenant when we stand in prayer. Our focus is on God, but we are Israel ( not simply individuals) and we are guided by Torah (not just engaging in “spirituality”.)

It is also significant that the two pillars stand at the porch, the vestibule, the entrance to the Mikdash. They marked the physical place of transition from secular to sacred. When we “enter” the Temple-by which I mean our liturgical or silent prayer- we see these two pillars. A reminder that our prayer is offered for the benefit of the Nation and that we “take with us” the very words of the Torah itself as our mantras, our supplications, and our meditations. When we “leave” that Temple to return to our more ordinary duties and mundane activities there they are again at that threshold to remind us that our prayer must be translated into practical mitzvot and that whatever we do we do not as individuals but as a People separated to God.

If we always do what we do- in our prayers, in our daily lives, in our donating and in our receiving- consciously as members of the “nation of priests” which Israel is, and as the “nation of prophets” which Israel is called to become -then we will be freed from any mere gazing at our own “contemplative” reflection.

The Mirror of the Contemplative

The “great sea” of the Temple of Solomon which we read of ( in I Kings 7:23 ) is like a giant reflective liquid mirror. It reminds me of the mirrors or reflective lenses of prophecy and inspiration which we read about in the Talmudic and Classical discussions on the prophetic vision of Moses. In Yevamot 45b and Derech HaShem 3:5 we read of a “non shining mirror” (Ispaklaria) which is an image for the way the prophets “see” God. Many classical commentators suggest that Moses “saw” through a shining lens of clear “glass” while the other prophets “saw” in this clouded (non-shining) mirror. (see further references to this in "Inner Space" by R.Aryeh Kaplan on page 136)

This “Mirror of the Contemplative” is itself a part of God. We were, so to speak, taken further into the personal realm of God at Sinai in order to receive a revelation which was simultaneously communal and personal.

The Midrash reads:

“The Holy One appeared to them like a many-faceted mirror. 
A thousand people look on it and it looks at all of them. 
So when the Holy One spoke,
each person in Israel said “He spoke to me”.....
Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 12 See also Exodus Rabba 5:9


“The mirror never changes,
but everyone who looks in it sees a different face”
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 12)

When we pray, each one of us approaches God humbly in our own way and, as it were, in our own Inner Sanctuary. We each receive what we are able to receive according to our own personal spiritual and physical “abilities”. Consequently, whatever we “pass on” to the world around us from that encounter and process will partake of our own individuality and of our own perspective.

“For with You is the fountain of life;
And in Your light shall we see light.
Draw forth Your loving kindness to those who know You;
And Your righteousness to the upright in heart.”
Psalm 36:10,11

As God’s Light is refracted through us, it will not obliterate our own colours and timbres but will make use of them and transform them into the creation of something new and immeasurably greater. In this way, we provide our own personal and imperfect mirrors as temple donations too.

We are not prophets nor (to be frank) are we the sons of prophets- but we are contemplatives engaged in a humble approach to draw near to our God in the most intimate way He will allow. It is therefore of significance to me that the contributions of those “Daughters of the Desert Sanctuary” should have become a sort of “Mirror made from Mirrors.” It is not just a symbol of their asceticism- their surrender of the tools of fashionable vanity and self-regard. It is also a symbol for how the contemplative who gazes on the reflection of God is hoping to participate in the creation of something which might reflect that vision into the world(s) around them.

With the pillars of Yachin (Torah) and Bo’az (Community)
To the left and to the right of us-
We stand before God at Sinai
Seeing things in God’s Mirror
Allowing God’s reflected Light to purify us and shine on
To wherever He wills it to shine.

Afterword: A Question of Gratitude

Psalm 116 asks how can we thank God enough and it comes up with its own answers.

The first (in verse 14) is that we should bring Joy into our prayers at every opportunity. This is because wine is the biblical symbol for Joy. If we are to raise a cup when we call on God’s Name in thanksgiving , then that cup is filled with the wine of Joy. When I make Kiddush I have always taken two sips of wine immediately after the blessing “ha-gafen”. Nobody told me to do this, its just a custom of mine. Yesterday I read an interesting opinion that the wedding cup of wine is drunk from in two sips to symbolize that whether things are good or bad, they are from God- and the bride and groom are invited to remember this in the ups and downs of married life. One who “draws near to God” as a contemplative will also experience many such ups and downs in the Divine/human relationship….and the important thing is to remember that the cup of wine, the symbol of joy, is called “the cup of salvations”. The factor which makes it possible for us to say “baruch HaShem” in joy- even in adversity- is that our joyful gratitude can be the way we choose to “view” things in God’s perspective- acknowledging that no matter what happens to us, our trust in God’s beneficence saves us from viewing situations in a distorted perspective. The salvation which is in that cup, is the way God rescues us from negative and despairing thoughts that deny His Providence. One might say that we were using the Mirror which God holds up for us rather than one which we had made ourselves.

The second answer the psalm gives us (in verse 14) encourages us to “fulfill our vows” in “public”. This is not easy to do as we are always on our guard lest we seem to be promoting our own dedication to the contemplative life as being something “superior” to more “ordinary” or “basic” aspects of Torah observance. This we are most certainly not doing, but it will happen that many will accuse us of it. Many have done so already! The reason we must not hide our intention to live lives of solitude, or our lives of humble dedication to prayer and Torah study, is because, speaking figuratively, our God “needs” witnesses. To quote Isaiah:
You are my witnesses, says HaShem, and (then) I am God,
(Isaiah 43:12)

These days, so many of our Jewish family members try to dislocate themselves from Sinai and its particular covenantal promises and many deny the existence of the God of Israel as anything but a concept or a useful symbol. This is almost a “spiritual fashion” at the moment. Rabbinical Judaism has always been a religion where a plurality of opinions has been the norm, and it has also been much more concerned with practice than with dogmas. But as a religious Jew- I view my own Jewish life of dedicated contemplation as being a mutual bond with a commanding and loving God not a relationship with a theological or philosophical concept. Membership of the Community of Israel only reaches its full expression-in my opinion- when we are involved in a living relationship with the God of Israel not in a theoretical relation to the idea of "it".

When we exit between those pillars of Yachin and Bo’az after prayer, we hope we have Torah and the Community beside us, but it is only when we bear the God of Israel who gives us the Torah in our own hearts that His Light can be seen clearly by others in the world we are re-entering. That is our particular service to Him. It is also our deepest act of gratitude.

N R Davies
Feb 21 2011

(This article is crossposted from the Community of Jewish Contemplatives website )