Pesah 2020, Mystery of Handwashing
Rabbi T’mimah Ickovits
April 1, 2020
Pesah Seder is a much beloved annual Jewish tradition. Jews all over the world gather to commemorate the Exodus from Mitzrayim, most often translated as “Egypt”.
Consider the word, Mitzrayim (מצרים ): A deeper truth is revealed through the letters. Mitzrayim (מצרים ) holds within it the root MeiTzaR (מצר) which means tight, narrow, and suggests constraint. Pesah, then, is a celebration of leaving constraint behind. The ultimate constraint is slavery.
Pesah begins on the full Moon near the Spring Equinox. Equinox points to balance. Daytime and night hours are about equal this time of year. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l, the grandfather of Jewish Renewal, taught that this inherent balance supports self-reflection needed for soul accounting practiced this time of year.
Pesah 2020 is unprecedented in most, if not all, of our lifetimes. Never before has there been a need to NOT convene community seders for Pesah. Coronavirus and the need for social distancing has radically changed day to day living.
In fact, hand washing has taken on a renewed importance because hand washing thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds kills viruses, including the one causing Covid 19. Interestingly, there are two hand washings in the Pesah Seder. The initial handwashing explicitly omits the blessing. The second handwashing is akin to the regular practice done before Jewish meals that include bread.
In order to better understand this let’s consider the blessing invoked for handwashing:
You are the fountain from which blessings come, God Who Is, Was, and Will Be, Our Divinity, Sovereign of the Universe, Who makes us holy through points of access and connects with us by our (actively) taking these hands. Amen
(Adapted from Rabbi Marcia Prager Path of Blessing)
It is a common misconception that this is a blessing for washing hands, yet, that is not what the words mean. “Al Netilat Yadaiim” is most often said prior to blessing and eating a meal including bread. The blessing acknowledges that these hands are on loan, as it were, from the Source of Life. We take them willingly, with awareness of the responsibility.
Washing hands is an act of purification and dedication. It is customary to remain silent between handwashing and saying the blessing on bread, “Hamotzi”. These two steps are part of a single intention to elevate and activate the work of our hands. Handwashing with the blessing sets an intention for the nourishment and subsequent energy received through the meal to provide fuel for Divine Service. The meal is elevated by means of invoking the path of blessing and using G!D’s Name.
There is a Jewish tradition that invites handwashing and the blessing as the first act upon rising in the morning, right after expressing gratitude for awakening from sleep. The first act upon awakening, then, dedicates the day’s work with our hands to G!D.
Let’s consider another time the blessing is omitted when hands are washed. Jewish tradition prohibits invoking the blessing on hands upon leaving a cemetery or when performing Taharah – ritual washing for the deceased.
“Honoring the dead and comforting mourners” are primary Jewish values relating to death. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l taught that death is a tender time for the soul. It is no longer housed in a body and can no longer “do” anything, not even mitzvot; acts connecting to the Holy Presence. Life is finite and there are likely to be regrets related to the finality of missed opportunities. Humans, being imperfect, make mistakes, so regret can be anticipated. It is an act of kindness to refrain from blessing hands acknowledging freedom of choice in front of the newly deceased since they have just lost the ability to do anything, even a mitzvah.
Slaves do not have the privilege to choose. A slave does not own anything, even their own hands. Each year, the Haggadah teaches that it is as if we each are personally escaping enslavement from Mitzrayim, “the narrow place”. We are all enslaved in one way or another. Telling the story of the Exodus and embellishing on it what it means in the context of today invokes the move to freedom. It is the act of telling the story that reclaims personal freedom of choice and Exodus from that narrow place.
Handwashing has come into focus as a result of the Covid- 19 pandemic. An ancient practice, it is more important than ever today. We wash hands clean not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of those around us and our spheres.
Seders will be different this year. People are doing seders where they are sheltering. Some will be with immediate family, others will be alone, and many will be participating in virtual sederim.
This year lives are at risk. Earth has been hit by plague. Washing hands completely with soap for 20 seconds is recognized as a reliable means to kill the virus causing Coved 19. Handwashing is now a matter of life or death. We wash to purify. We wash to stay healthy. We wash to mitigate the spread of disease. We wash to stack the deck in favor of life.
Covid 19 is currently spreading through the United States and the world, Never before in my memory has it been a bad idea to gather in community for health reasons, much less the Pesah seder. Containment of the pandemic is a matter of life or death.
Its more important than ever to exercise freedom of choice even though it may be uncomfortable to limit Pesah traditions. Wherever you spend the holidays, elevate the holiday and call in your freedom of choice to contain the virus. Be a part of the solution even if it is challenging. Choose Life and Love. Bless and be blessed.
וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ. וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ. וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ:
May the ease and comfort of Adonai rest upon us. May the actions of our hands direct that pleasantness upon us and may the actions of our hands direct it to the One.
[Photo credit: Chabad]