Shabbat candles: 7:24 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 9:1-11:47
Haftorah: II Samuel 6:1-7:17
Havdalah: 8:26 p.m.
I have two tales about hands.
The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on the candidate’s head or shoulders.
In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy [34:9], where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, his successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.
We call it semicha, the same word used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced semicha, laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” [Leviticus 9:6]. But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifices of old as it is to my college’s ordination today. And for the same reason; not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”
The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy.” They, too, lay hands on things; hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery, make the old look like new.
By contrast, my college president’s hands, like the hands of the Temple priest, do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.
Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand,” it says. But God has no actual hands; God has no body altogether. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.
So, too, Aaron’s descendants (the kohanim of today) reach out hands to offer the Priestly Benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too; or, nowadays, increasingly, blessing even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through our outstretched hands, by the hand of God.
God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse, as when we warn, “hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But like all things holy also, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded … so that God’s presence may appear.” We, too, can lay on hands for blessing.
When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we just have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.