Chapped Skin and Hand-cream – Parshas Beshalach 5773
It is winter and one of the things that I have been thinking of is chapped skin. Yes, it is true; my hands are very rough and chapped. I use a hand-cream on them, but, when I put on my tie I can feel the fabric catching on my skin. I cannot help thinking that one of the reasons my hands are chapped is because as a religious Jew I am constantly washing my hands. When we wake up in the morning, we wash our hands by taking a cup and pouring water over each hand three times. Before we eat bread we wash our hands in a similar manner. Many people also wash their hands when they have finished eating, before they say the Grace after Meals. Before we pray we wash our hands. The kohanim, Priests, before they give the blessing from the platform in front of the ark, have their hands washed by the Levites. So what is the deal with all the hand washing?
The Talmud states that one reason for washing hands before eating bread it is to imitate the kohanim, the Priests. In the times of the Temple, the Priests used to eat tithes – terumah and ma’aser. A certain percentages of crops would be given to the Priests in the Temple, as a tax in order to support those who engaged in communal work. The Kohanim were teachers, leaders, judges etc. The grain tithe, terumah, had to be eaten in a state of purity – the kohanim had to be pure and the terumah itself has to be pure. Purity usually requires immersion in a mikvah, but since we eat with the hands there is a little bit of a reminder to everyone that in the same way as a kohen has to be pure when he eats terumah, so we are all like the kohanim. Ideally we should also eat everything in a state of purity. Although eating is instinctive, it is nevertheless something which we should think about. We should appreciate the food, say a blessing, appreciate life, appreciate that there is a spiritual component to the food, the word of G-d that sustains everything. We should be in control of our eating, not be controlled by it. Purifying our hands before eating is a reminder of all the above. (The Tosafot in their commentary maintain that washing hands is also about basic hygiene.) In addition it would be easier for the kohanim to eat terumah in purity if everyone else was also being careful about purity when they eat.
Why do we wash our hands when we wake up in the morning? One reason is based on the fact that the kohen entering the Temple had to wash his hands and feet before beginning the service. When we wake up in the morning and enter the day, we are, in a sense, entering the Temple to serve G-d. We look at the world as a Temple, and at ourselves as its priests. Virtually anything that we do during the course of the day, if performed with the right intention is a mitzvah, a form of Divine service. When someone works, invests in the stock market, installs software, cares for a child, or cooks a meal with intent to support their family, perform an act of kindness, pay tuition, give charity etc. then everything they are doing is an act of Divine service in the Temple. So, like the kohen, we also wash our hands before entering the Temple and engaging in Divine service
Why do we wash our hands before we pray? The Talmud says that one of the prerequisites for prayer is cleanliness. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, says that this can be understood metaphorically. Before we beseech G-d, and put out our hands begging for life, health, dignity and wealth, we have to ensure that those hands are clean. Washing our hands before prayer reminds us to think about how morally clean our hands actually are. When someone put their hands out to me asking for something, did I respond? When someone asked me for a favor, did I do it for them? When someone apologized to me did I forgive them? Hands are the utensils for action, and Rav Kook says, cleaning the hands physically with water is reminder that our actions should also be pure before we pray to G-d.
Is it worth having chapped hands? I think it is, and you can always use some hand-cream.