Every time I walk into my home I wash my hands. This has long been my practice (the New York City subway is gross), but these days hand-washing takes on a whole new dimension. When I put my hands under the tap and start counting to 20, I’m scrubbing for my life and the lives of those I love. It’s been a year since lockdown started, and we are all germaphobes now.
When I’m at the playground with my toddler, I try hard not to think about how many other little hands have gripped the chains of the swingset before his. How many kids have slid that slide? How many parents have helped a kid up this ladder? How much longer before I can Purell it all away?
This week’s Torah portion isn’t about the novel coronavirus. Actually, Ki Tisa is better known for the drama that takes place in its final chapter. Moses descends from the mountain, sees the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, and shatters the tablets with God’s words on the ground. Then he crumbles the idol to dust, mixes it with water, and forces the offenders to drink it. Then the Levites kill the offenders anyway.
I have a lot of thoughts about the verses that deal with the story of the golden calf, which I hadn’t remembered as quite so violent. Instead, though, I want to spend some time thinking about the first bit. The hand-washing section.
In Exodus 30:18-19, God commands Moses to “make a [sink] of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn] from it.” You might remember that last week’s text ended with an emphasis on blood and guts. Now, God is explaining that if you’re going to go for the gore, you need to rinse yourself off afterward. This makes sense.
It’s the next verse that really got to me.
“When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die,” reads Exodus 30:20. Reading this felt like a punch to the gut. Isn’t that what we do, every day — wash our hands with soap, that we may not die?
It’s striking that the commandment pertains to the moment of entering the Tent of Meeting, the sacred place that has to be set apart. It made me think about my house here in Brooklyn. Not a Tent of Meeting by anyone’s description, but a sacred sort of place, nonetheless. A place that is set apart from the world, into which only a select few may enter. Myself, my wife, our kiddo. Two babysitters. Two pod-mates.
Everyone who enters our home washes their hands before doing anything else. This is how we all keep the space sacred and clean. It’s how we keep the scary reality of pandemic life out.
The Tent of Meeting itself is inherently set apart, but God also goes into some detail about how to make it even more special. Special spices and oils — myrrh, and cinnamon, and olive oil — all come together to anoint this traveling temple and all who enter it. As I read about pouring cinnamon and myrrh over the Tent, it brought to mind my newfound house rule: anytime it snows enough to make me shovel, I bake a cake. These little rituals make me feel better about things. I can’t control the dismal weather or the raging pandemic, the logic goes, but I can control how much cake I have.
For those who were parents before the pandemic descended upon us in early 2020, this year must come as a sharp contrast, bringing up challenges to their existing parenting styles. For my wife and I, this is basically all we’ve ever known. When I read the commandment to wash hands and feet as “a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages,” my breath caught in my throat. I know that the vaccines are making their rounds, but I also know that new variants are ravaging new domains. Will our little one ever live in a world without COVID-19?
I know this sounds like hyperbole, and maybe it is. Also, maybe part of my work as a mama is to let go of any ideas I had about what parenthood would look like. I thought our little one would have little friends by now, and that he’d be hanging out with our grown-up friends for family dinners. I thought I’d be hosting Shabbat dinners, and holiday celebrations, and birthdays. Instead, we’ve had a Zoom seder and solo Shabbats. He knows precious few of our friends, and won’t see his grandparents for who knows how long. This isn’t what I imagined.
I think that all I can do is to hold fast to the rituals that Aaron and his sons practiced before entering the Tent of Meeting, and to keep my home as safe as it can be. These physical actions are a type of prayer as well, a meditation on safety and hope in this strange time. Plus, hand washing is, itself, kind of an act of faith. I believe that what I’m doing will see me clear to the other side. I will let that belief continue to sustain me until I get there.
This is what Torah is all about – finding meaning and interpretation for our time. Thank you for your insights.