Holy handiwork

Holy handiwork

Shemini | Leviticus 9:1-11:47

I have two tales about hands. 

The first concerns the hands of the president of the college where I teach. When rabbis and cantors are ordained at Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — the president lays his hands on each 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 that’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable. 

We call it smichah, the same word used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced smichah — 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 sacrifice 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.” They too lay hands on things — hands that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery, making the old look and operate like new. 

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the temple priest — do nothing. They just sit there, untrained and inert, 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, after all, has no body. 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, one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy”; they are untrained and accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently but remain exactly the same as they were before. 

But there is this difference (a big one): Those being blessed 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 also like all things holy, 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.

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