The Hands-On Jew

The Hands-On Jew

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 6:48 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 1:1-5:26
Haftorah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Havdalah: 7:50 p.m.

A quantum evolutionary leap occurred when we learned to walk on our two hind legs, and freed our two front paws for better things. That’s how paws became hands. Our language captures the distinction very nicely: to “paw” someone is a far cry from “giving them a hand.”

Hands function as direct agents of our will. They become almost independent minds in their own right, to the point where, if we make a mess of things, we say it is because the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. We use our hands symbolically: raise a hand to be noticed, wring our hands in despair, clap hands in appreciation, shake hands in friendship, hold hands in love.

The Torah provides another hand gesture, when it instructs the priest to “lay his hands” on the sacrifices [Leviticus 1:4]. Why? The point of sacrificing was that by setting fire to an offering, you sent its smoke up to God — not an irrational idea, from the perspective of our ancestors. If you want to give God something, and if God is in the heavens, the way to get your gift there is to convert it into smoke that naturally rises upward. But still, why lay hands on it first?

The Ramban’s answer reflects the extent to which our hands are so intimately associated with who we are. By specifying the kohen’s hands, he says, the Torah implies that priests may not delegate this action to others. Normally, in Jewish law, “one’s agent is like oneself.” If I appoint you as my representative, you can buy, sell, trade, and even contract a marriage on my behalf. Sacrifice, however, is an exception. Gifts to God require the actual presence of the giver. The laying-on of hands signifies that the giver has cared enough to be there.

There are two kinds of societies, it seems: hands-on and hands-off. Hands-off cultures are cold and formal. People hide behind titles; put on faces; play their parts. Hands-on cultures strive to be personal. They know the power of being touched by one another. Hands-off societies send their love by Hallmark; hands-on societies convey it with their hands.

I do not mean to overlook the damage people do in both cultures by putting their hands where they shouldn’t — either in the till, or on an unwilling other. Our hands really are powerful vehicles; there is no such thing as an innocent touch. My point here is not how hands should not be used, but how they should, and in that regard, Judaism is a hands-on culture that insists on personal presence.

A much-maligned example is “the laying-on of hands” for people who are sick. Sunday morning television associates the act with evangelists, but it may equally well be any one of us, laying a gentle hand on the shoulder of a friend to show that we are present. The mitzvah of visiting the sick cannot be delegated. Cards and flowers are very nice, but when you are sick, there is nothing like having a hand to hold.

We use our hands also to bless the people we love. Jacob blessed his sons with his hands, when he was dying. It wasn’t enough just to write a will and wish them well. Both he and they wanted the blessing of hands laid-on. And so do we. That is why we, too, bless the next generation by laying our hands upon their heads.

Don’t be shy. The next time your daughter, grandson, favorite niece or nephew smiles up at you, do more than smile back. Reach out your hands to hold them tight — a certain sign that you are there. Perhaps go the next step as well: put your hand on their heads and tell them you are blessing them. They say God’s presence could be felt in the fingers of the kohanim. Try it. You never know.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at the Hebrew Union College. He lectures widely around the country and is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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