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Under the Apple Tree

Many if not most of the readers of this weekly d’var Torah may be too young to remember the song, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” First recorded by the Glen Miller Orchestra and shortly thereafter rereleased by the Andrew Sisters, it is a World War II song expressing fidelity between a woman and her soldier boyfriend soon to be sent overseas.

Not really my style of music. With two sisters in the house watching the original American Bandstand with Dick Clark, I grew up on Doo-Wop, the Everly Brothers, Motown, Four Seasons, and the British invasion.  Nevertheless, I heard “Under the Apple Tree” quite often in the ’50s. I was always bothered by why “under an apple tree?” Where did the notion of sitting under an apple tree with a girl come from? Where did the lyricists Les Brown and Charles Tobias get that refrain from? The answer will be revealed shortly, and the source may surprise you. So, don’t change that station!

In this week’s dual parshiot Torah reading, VaYakhel-Pekudei, we are told that when it came to donating and contributing materials for the construction of the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary used by the Children of Israel during the 40 years they lived in the desert) and its furnishings, there was no shortage. The Torah reports that the people continued to bring to Moshe, “free will gifts morning after morning.” There was such abundance that Moshe had to proclaim throughout the camp for the people to stop bringing gifts of raw materials. “Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering for the Holy. There was enough for all the work, to do it and there was extra.” (Shemot 36:6-7)

The remainder of the Torah portion goes on to describe in detail the production of the various component parts of the Mishkan and the utensils needed for its service: pots, basins, forks, shovels, and firepans. One object stands out in the list. It is the copper laver, הכיור נחושת, a very large basin, its base made of copper mirrors, placed in the courtyard of the Mishkan. (Shemot 38:8)

The Kohanim were required to wash their hands and feet from it before performing the sacrificial service.  However, the copper used for the base of this water basin was unique. This contribution was specifically of polished copper donated by the married women of Israel. (Shemot 38:8) Unlike the incident of the Golden Calf, where the women did not participate at all by giving their gold jewelry, here the women freely gave their mirrors of polished copper as donations to the building project. Where did the mirrors come from and what is the need for the Torah to point out this fact?

Rashi, in his commentary, explains the “behind the scenes” motivation of the women in this specific contribution.  “In Egypt, the daughters of Israel had in their possession mirrors into which they looked when they adorned themselves. But Moshe was displeased with them for they were made for the evil inclination. So Hashem said to him, ‘Accept them for these are more beloved by Me than everything else. Through them, the women set up many hosts (had many children) in Egypt.’” Rashi continues, “When their husbands were fatigued from the rigorous labor, they would bring them food and drink to eat. Then they would take out the mirrors and each woman would look at herself together with her husband in the mirror. She would entice him saying, ‘I am more beautiful than you.’ In this way, they would bring their husbands to desire. They cohabited (in the fields) and conceived as it says in Song of Songs, 8:5 ‘Under the apple tree I aroused you.’” (Rashi, Shemot 38:8)

The copper for this laver was made of that same polished copper used for mirrors by the Jewish women in Egypt. The laver was made from this copper since it served to keep the peace between a husband and his wife in Egypt and produce thousands of Jews that would become the Nation of Israel. It also served to make peace in the rare situation of a Sotah, a woman accused of infidelity. The water she drank to prove her innocence was drawn from the water in this copper Laver.”

An important lesson is taught to us by the Midrash quoted by Rashi. Judaism is straightforward and honest about all human instincts and desires. We are created with them; they are necessary and comprise a natural component of our makeup. Each serves to benefit the individual and mankind. The rabbinic literature refers to them as the “good and evil inclinations.” These terms are used because generally these desires are associated with good or bad actions.  For example, aggression calls to mind violence, doing something harmful to others. Love on the other hand is generally associated with the good inclination. It engenders positive feelings toward our fellow human beings, accounting for many acts of kindness that we do.

However, sometimes we must use the aggressive impulse to repel an unjustified assault. Not to call upon this instinct and act aggressively might be foolish and prove crueler in the long run. Not standing up to the Nazis in a strong and timely fashion led to greater atrocities and injustice. Similarly, loving the wrong values can prove destructive involving us in support of truly harmful people with false philosophies. Countless hours of wasted time and effort may be accumulated following an artful and articulate demagogue who promises a better life if we just get rid of those people over there. In truth all of our desires and instincts are neutral. The good or bad is a result of how we employ them.

Human sexuality is one of our most basic instincts and desires. The Torah’s attitude toward sexuality, in contradistinction to that of other religions, is unique. On our holiest day, Shabbat, it is perfectly appropriate for husband and wife to cohabit. It is in fact part of the mitzvah of “Oneg Shabbat,” the enjoyment of Shabbat. In Judaism sexuality is not something we engage in with a sense of shame and quilt. This desire as any other can be employed by our bad or good inclinations. Of course, only Hashem knows our true motivations.

The women of Israel used their sexual desire for the highest goal, to participate in God’s plan to build the Nation of Israel. To bring this nation into existence, they had to do everything they could to entice their husbands who were physically exhausted and psychologically demoralized under the heavy burden of their servitude in Egypt. Using the polished copper for mirrors was essential for them to accomplish their goal. Moshe could not know this. How could such material, mirrors of polished copper used for beauty and lust, be fit for use in the holy Mishkan?

The answer lies in understanding this idea. When we use our wealth and physical desires to bring about God’s will, everything is fit, appropriate, and acceptable. That is what they were created for.  This idea is not a contradiction to our concept of holiness. Every part of our nature and every physical matter in the universe can be elevated in the service of God or brought low in the service of human self-gratification. The choice is up to us.

Stay Covid safe and well!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan