A quantum evolutionary leap occurred when we learned to walk on our two hind legs, freeing our two front paws for better things. That’s how paws became hands. Our language captures the distinction nicely: To “paw” someone is a far cry from “giving them a hand.”
Hands function as direct agents of our will, but become almost independent minds in their own right; if we make a mess of things, we say, “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. Why? The point of sacrificing was that by setting fire to an offering, you sent its smoke up to heaven, where God insists on living — not an irrational idea, from the perspective of our ancestors. 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 their 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 requires the actual presence of the giver.
There are two kinds of societies, it seems: 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 unwilling second parties. 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 sick people. Sunday morning shows associate the act with evangelists, but it may well be any one of us, laying a gentle hand on the shoulder of a friend to show we are present. The mitzva of visiting the sick cannot be delegated. Cards and flowers are 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, as 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 while praying for them.
Don’t be shy. The next time your daughter, grandson, or favorite niece or nephew smiles up at you, 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 head and tell them you are blessing them. They say God’s presence could be felt in the fingers of the priests. Try it. You never know.