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Two years ago, a group from our shul went to Medzhybizh, the small Ukranian town where the holy Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism (d. 1760), is buried. When we arrived there and visited the grave, the chasidim told us that we should also visit the mikvah of the Baal Shem Tov, which is a short drive from the town itself. The mikvah has a special story connected to it.
Once, the Baal Shem Tov was walking in the forest and it came time to daven mincha. The Baal Shem Tov didn’t want to daven mincha until he had washed his hands. But he couldn’t find water to wash his hands, so he started to weep. He lifted his voice to the heavens and cried, “Hashem, better that I not have been created, than having to daven without first washing my hands.” Suddenly a miraculous spring opened up in front of him and he washed his hands in the spring. The legend associated with it is that whoever immerses in the spring will be healed from their ailments.
When I first heard this story, I remember thinking: “Whoa! That’s an extreme reaction to not washing hands.” But in these days of great anxiety, we are being reminded that washing our hands carefully, thoroughly and frequently can indeed be a matter of life and death for some and that it is our obligation as citizens and as Jews to do so. According to the Washington, DC Department of Health, we should all be washing our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds multiple times a day.
The obligation of the Kohen, the priest, to wash his hands appears at the beginning of the Torah portion Ki Tissa, which we read a few weeks ago. The Torah says:
Make a basin 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. When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die. It shall be a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages (Exodus 30: 18-21).
The Torah tells us that this mitzvah is a chok olam, an eternal law. How can this mitzvah—in an age where we no longer have the Temple—still have meaning in our lives? Even though we no longer have a basin, and we no longer have a Temple, we do still have a mitzvah to wash our hands, called netilat yadayim. According to the law code the Shulchan Aruch, we are for religious reasons obligated to wash our hands frequently and carefully at many points in our lives.
Says the Shulchan Aruch, at the very beginning of the Code:
“The following things require washing the hands in water [after them]: One who rises from bed, goes out of the bathroom, or of the bath house, one who cuts his nails, takes off his shoes, touches his feet, or washes his head, some say: also one who goes among the dead, or touched the dead, one who cleanses his clothes of lice, has marital relations, touches a louse, or touches his body with his hand. Anyone doing any of these and not washing his hands, if he is a scholar, his studies are forgotten, and if he is not a scholar, he goes out of his mind.
One who lets blood from his shoulders and didn’t wash his hands, will be afraid for seven days. One who takes a haircut or shaves and does not wash his hands, will be afraid for three days. One who cuts his nails and does not wash his hands, will be afraid for one day. And [in any of these three situations, he] will not know what he is afraid of” (Orach Chaim 4:18-19).
That is very forceful language about our requirement to wash our hands.
I had always assumed that the minutiae of these laws were anxiety-inducing. But now, during these frightening days, I realize that they are actually very helpful tools for us to gain spiritual strength.
The Mishnah Berurah offers two explanations for why we are ritually obligated to wash our hands every morning when we awaken. The Rosh in the late 13th century says that we must wash our hands because “the hands are busy.” This is a reason based upon cleanliness: We wash our hands in the morning and before prayer in order to practice good hygiene.
Another explanation quoted is that of the Rashba (14th century), who cites the obligation of the Kohen to wash his hands as the source of our practice. According to the Rashba, each time we wash our hands, we are reminding ourselves of our spiritual values.
The Zohar says something similar. There is a ruach ra’ah, a bad spirit, that rests upon our bodies and by washing the hands ritually we are spiritually cleansing ourselves. So too, Rabbenu Bachye says that the ten fingers on our hands are connected to the ten sefirot that make up the Divine Throne in heaven. When we say the blessing of al netilat yadayim, we are reminding ourselves to use our hands to elevate our daily activity in a spiritual manner—to soar to the heavens and connect to Hashem.
I thought about these reasons this week. There is so much about the coronavirus that is beyond our control. It is a very concerning time for our city, our country, and our world. We should try to use these frequent hand washings to go beyond basic hygiene and allow ourselves to soar spiritually. Just as every single person in our community and in our city needs to practice basic hygiene, now more than ever our city also needs inspiration and spirituality.
My rebbe, Rabbi Avi Weiss, taught me that in the blessing of al netilat yadayim, which is commonly translated as referring to the commandment to wash our hands, the word natal actually means “to take” or “to assume responsibility” by lifting our hands in dedication to God, in hope that we live a life of goodness, kindness and giving to others, especially those in need.
Another dear friend and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, writes, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
Maybe our washing of hands can also be a way of bringing more unity to our community, our city and our country. We wash our hands not only to protect ourselves but also to protect others—neighbors who we do not even know. We wash our hands to protect each other against a common enemy that doesn’t ask us what our jobs are, or what our faith is, or what our politics are. We are equal in the face of this virus.
This is scary. But it is also a reminder to us that we are all in this together. I have heard reports of unprecedented cooperation in these days between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The coronavirus is a reminder that there is no us and them. There is only “all of us.”
Much of this is beyond our control. But a spiritual response is within our control. We can seek to use health guidelines as spiritual reminders of our responsibilities to Hashem and to others. In that context, here is a meditation, which I worked on with Rabbi Weiss, that people can recite while washing their hands. It is a non-denominational meditation, as the virus is also non-denominational.
Meditation on Washing Hands:
As I wash my hands, I not only cleanse them of dirt and dangerous elements, but I also pledge to lift them in holiness. I think of those affected by the coronavirus and pray for their recovery. I commit myself to dedicate my hands to doing good for the world by giving charity. I pledge to use my hands to help others in physical need. I pledge only to write words that can make a positive difference in the world. I pray that my hands not harm others, but rather be a source of blessing to the world. To paraphrase the popular song from decades ago, “The whole world is in our hands.” In the words of psalmist: “Lift up your hands in holiness and bless the Lord” (Psalms 134:2).
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom—the National Synagogue in Washington, DC.