Why you should wash your hands (Vayeshev)
By two wings a man is lifted up from things earthly: by simplicity and purity. -Thomas Kempis
Jews have an ancient ritual of washing hands after using the bathroom, and before eating bread. While the command pre-dates any concept of hygiene and was likely one of the reasons why Jews survived the Black Plague in such large numbers, the Berdichever gives a much deeper, mystical reason for the practice.
He explains that one of our missions in this material world, is through our thoughts and actions to release and elevate “sparks” that permeate our physical existence and move them to the spiritual plane. Only humans, who are the bridge between the physical and the spiritual have that capability and purpose.
Therefore, every act we do, even the most mundane ones, should ideally have the intent and purpose of elevating those hidden sparks from the material and superficial to the spiritual and sublime. We have the power to take the finite and temporal and somehow, just by having the right intention and effort, make it infinite, timeless.
That, the Berdichever states, is the secret of washing hands (Netilat Yadaim in Hebrew). By washing hands in the ritual fashion, we are elevating those particular sparks in time and space. Washing hands is somehow related to three instances where God’s “hand” is referenced to in the Torah: “the great hand,” “the high hand,” and “the strong hand,” and the washing of our hands on each occasion as prescribed, elevates those trapped sparks and returns them to their divine root.
This is also connected to the blessing on eating bread, “Blessed are You, God, our God, King of the World, Who takes out bread from the earth.” The word “earth” relates to the physicality of this world. “Who takes out” refers to retrieving those divine sparks from the material and converting them, returning them back to their spiritual origin.
As a physical, material, earthly being, I often feel like I have no idea what the Berdichever is talking about. However, some part of me, some spiritual stirring perhaps, feels like I’m touching on something familiar, something forgotten, something beyond my physical senses, beyond even rational comprehension. If we believe that we are indeed souls clothed in physical bodies, that our corporeal self is merely a shell, a host for our eternal spirits, then the Berdichever is giving us hints and guides for the spiritual beings that we ultimately are.
May we reach growing levels of understanding and the comprehension that really, it’s all for God, and we each need to find our own way, our own purpose in this divine scheme.
To cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s always good to connect and reconnect.