Synagogue Life Should Be Like Handwashing (not hand wringing!)

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Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Parashat Ki Tissa, 2010

Nature and culture are the twin poles of human existence. Nature is how the world greets us in raw beauty, promise and power. Culture is how we partner with it, riding its sound waves with music, converting wood and stone into homes, and carving ski slopes out of mountain snow. Other animals too sing, build and play. But we do it through what anthropologists call culture: political parties, religious denominations, and shopping malls. We have no say over nature. But the culture we produce can make life worth living or crush us altogether.

Nature runs wild. Culture is nature set aside, contained, and controlled by human design. Judaism addresses them both, with, among other things, the commandment to wash.

The Jewish interface with nature is the mikveh, water that is retained in its natural flowing condition. It is regenerative. It prepares us for Shabbat, propels a woman beyond her menstrual period, and confirms converts as newly Jewish.

The Jewish interface with culture is ritual handwashing. Just the opposite of mikveh, it requires water extracted from nature and reserved in a basin. It is, as it were, "culturalized" water,  a perfect example of "nature set aside, contained, and controlled by human design."  Mikveh (water in its natural state) is to nature as handwashing (water culturally reserved) is to culture. We treat handwashing as merely hygienic, but it too is supposed to be regenerative.

To be sure, Jewish handwashing is hygienic in part. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Talmud grasped the connection between hands and sickness. It knew nothing of bacteria, of course, and thought sickness from unwashed hands was due to an evil spirit that dwelt there. But it correctly knew that touching the mouth, nose, or open sores (the Talmud's own examples) without washing is dangerous. 

In addition, however, Jewish handwashing symbolizes spiritual regeneration. Mishnah B'rurah puts it succinctly, giving us "two views" as to why we wash in the morning. "The Rosh [Asher ben Yechiel , 1250-1327] wrote that hands are askaniyot ["active"]; they cannot help but touch filthy body parts at night.... The Rashba [Solomon ibn Adret, 1235-1310] held that it is because we awaken from sleep as if created anew." Neither authority is referring to disease here. Their concern is that we pray in an appropriate state: cleansed of bodily filth, for the Rosh; as if reborn, to the Rashba. Either way, we wash not just to stay healthy.  And for the Rashba, the handwashing that represents culture is regenerative.

Humans culturalize nature with institutions. The tabernacle is the Jewish institution par excellence, the model for the way human culture should recreate us, not destroy, us. Appropriately, the mandate for handwashing from culturally reserved water that is poured from a vessel is modeled on the priests' basin that the tabernacle contained.  The priests wash there, says our sedra "so that they do not die." Our institutions should follow that example.  Even without the actual water to remind us, they should be enlivening not deadening, to those who, like the priest, work in them.

That is not what boards of Jewish institutions report. Meetings are often desultory at best, litigious at worst - even downright nasty. They can be life-depleting, not life-enhancing. Committee assignments are like life sentences. Volunteers are hard to find.

But that is not the Jewish way. Jewish organizational life should be like the handwashing that characterized the original Jewish institution, the Temple. Working there should make those who serve it feel reborn. This is especially true of synagogues, the successor institution to the desert tabernacle and to the Temple that succeeded it.  If our synagogue committee or board meetings run us down or wear us out, something is wrong. We should return home from meetings charged by the good we have done, moved by the devotion of fellow board members, and elated by seeing human initiative at its best solving problems at their worst.

Nachmanides finds kabbalistic meaning in ritual handwashing. Our ten fingers represent the ten sefirot, the ten divine emanations through which blessing reaches us from on high. When we finish washing, we hold our fingers upwards as if reaching for blessing which flows through ritually purified hands into our lives.

Mikveh too brings kabbalistic blessing, but through nature - the place we usually associate with divine presence. God created nature, after all, not institutions. But we are God's continuing agents of creation, and we create the institutions where blessing continues even after God's own work is done. What a concept! Boards, task forces and committees are our own God-like work. They should wash our souls, purify our spirits, and bring us blessing.