This week's parsha
Washing the Hands
A common feature of traditional Jewish life is washing the hands. On awaking in the morning, one washes one's hands. In the daily prayer book, the first of the morning blessings concerns washing the hands. Before eating bread, one washes the hands, saying the same blessing. The hands of the Kohanim (Priests) are washed by the Levites before they bless the people on a festival.
An important source for the practice of washing the hands is found with the conclusion of G‑d's instructions to Moses concerning the building of the Sanctuary. There we find the description of one more item which would have to be made. This was a copper washbasin on a stand, to be placed in the courtyard of the Sanctuary. The Priests would use it to wash their hands and feet before undertaking any kind of service of G‑d, such as bringing an offering.
Why is the description of this item left to the very end? All the other objects to be made for the Sanctuary -- such as the Menorah and the Altar, and even the garments of the Kohanim -- were described in the two previous Torah portions. One answer is that the washbasin is not used for any immediate service of G‑d: washing is simply a preparation for service. So it is listed at the very end.
The washbasin was made from the copper mirrors which the women brought to Moses as an offering for the Sanctuary. The Sages comment that, at first, Moses was hesitant about accepting them: surely, a mirror is made to satisfy the desire for physical beauty. Potentially, if this were taken to an extreme, the mirror could become an instrument of the Evil Desire. Can this really be part of the sacred Sanctuary? Yet G‑d told him to accept them. In fact, as reported by the Sages, G‑d said: "These are more precious to Me than everything else." What is the connection between the mirrors which were so precious to G‑d and the concept of washing one's hands?
The purpose of Creation is described by the Sages as the desire "to have a dwelling for the Divine in the lower world." This is achieved particularly by the Sanctuary or Temple. The Jewish people were granted the power to build this physical structure where the Divine Presence would dwell. At the same time, the Divine Presence would also dwell in the heart and life of each individual. Now, we might think it is sufficient if the Divine dwells only in the most spiritual part of our lives. This is why Moses was at first reluctant to accept the mirrors. Yet G‑d told him that the Divine also dwells in our less spiritual dimension. At that very point where we may well need a measure of self-control, the Divine is revealed.
This relates also to washing the hands. This is a preparation for service of G‑d by the fact that it signifies washing away that which is not pure. In this sense, hand-washing is similar to the theme of self-control. At this point our true sacred potential as physical human beings is revealed. This step is more than just a preparation for further activities, and is even recognized by G‑d as "more precious to Me than everything else." For then, as real people in the physical world, we truly begin to serve the Divine.