Weekly Shiur – Parshat Ki Tisa – Anne Gordon
Cleanliness as Next to Godliness
This week’s parsha offers the temptation to address the broad issues of Sefer Shemot – most significantly, the order of the parshiot that surround Parashat Ki Tisa: Terumah and Tetzaveh on the one hand, and Vayakhel and Pekudei on the other. The order of the parshiot themselves is not the exciting question, of course, but whether the Mishkan is an ideal means of serving God (as implied by the details found in Terumah and Tetzaveh) or a response to Bnei Yisrael’s inadequacies (as suggested by the reiteration of the mitzvot relating to the Mishkan in Vaykehl and Pekudei). I will, however, forbear.
Instead, let us examine one of the mitzvot of this parsha, one that might strike us as preparatory only, but is presented as critical to the entirety of the Avodah in the Mishkan: the priestly washing of hands and feet in the “kiyor.” “Kiyor” is often translated as “laver,” but unless one is an expert in archaic English, this term does not grant us an easy understanding of the mitzvah (indeed, the dictionary definition of “laver” refers us back to the description as found here, in Exodus).
The mitzvah is as follows:
“Make a laver 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 Aharon and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn from it]. When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die. It shall be a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages” (Shemot 30:18-21, New JPS Translation)
In this day and age, when we are accustomed to washing before doing any serious activity (surgery…eating…), we might expect that the kohanim would wash before embarking on their service of God. Let us note that (leaving aside our current understanding of bacteria), our practice today of regular “ritual” washing is rooted in this command. We wash our hands when we first arise in the morning, and before we eat bread. We wash before dipping our vegetable on Seder night. And kohanim who go to duchan (the daily recitation of Birkat Kohanim in Eretz Yisrael…and on holidays in the Diaspora) have their hands washed by the leviim. Of course, we are no longer accustomed to wash our feet as separate from regular showering, but consider that the kohanim were barefoot in the Temple…and also that we (generally) wear socks and shoes, which protect our feet from the dirt of exposure.
What is this mitzvah? Is it simply a matter of washing in preparation for serious work (in which case, the ritual washing around meals today, for example, implies that a halakhic meal is a serious event indeed!)? Is it simply a matter of being clean? R. Hirsch maintains that the water from the basin is itself a “kli” – a utensil to prepare for the Avodah, a means by which the kohen readies himself for his service of God. Water, then is not valuable in and of itself, but a means to an end: the act of cleansing. Certainly, Jews have enjoyed the benefits of good hygiene, presumably as learned from the ritual washing…and all the more so when we include tevilah ba-mikveh (dunking in a mikveh) and the washing that follows the purification of a dead body. The Jews’ audacity (sic) to survive the medieval Black Death – that is, they didn’t contract it to the same extent as their gentile neighbors – is generally attributed to their regular cleansing. Indeed, halakha establishes a category of “istanis” – for those who are particularly personally sensitive to a need for bodily cleanliness, with practical implications for washing on fast days, and the like (an interesting question arises whether current western standards of hygiene places most of society in the category of “istanis,” but the question of changing standards is a topic for another shiur).
But before we relegate this washing of hands and feet either to serious hygiene in approaching God’s service, or worse, as “obscure Temple ritual,” let us recall what may be the Jewish child’s first encounter with a ritual washing of feet: a key element of hospitality in the ancient world.
That is, one of the significant differences between the hospitality of Avraham and that of Lot, when they each respectively welcomed God’s messengers into their homes, is the invitation to the strangers to wash the dust of the earth from their feet. We recall that Rashi explains that both Avraham and Lot were concerned that their guests might be idolaters who worship the dust of the earth, and each wanted to eliminate the possibility of bringing the object of idolatry into his home (granted, Avraham was the more careful of the two, which is the real thrust of Rashi’s comment, addressing the order of hospitable activity from the verses).
Moreover, the judgement against a kohen who embarks on the avodah without proper washing of his hand and feet is death. We might think that this punishment is extreme – until we recall that the Kohen Gadol who does the avodah without all of the proper garments is also judged for death. But the Netziv maintains that the death sentence with regard to the priestly garments is for a different reason than the death sentence here. The mitzvah of the priestly garments is specifically for the Kohen Gadol at the prescribed time of certain activities of the Avodah. The mitzvah of washing hands and feet is independent of any particular action or service. Rather, any kohen who entered the Heikhal (for that matter, Moshe Rabbenu) was obligated to wash beforehand.
With this mitzvah, therefore, we encounter the sanctification of our hands (and feet) in the service of God. Just as the Heikhal is a sacred space, all that is to be done there must be done in sanctity. The water is the utensil that enables us to achieve that Kedusha…and without that sanctification, the kohanim have no “right” to enter the Heikhal. The implications of this element of the mitzvah for us should be clear: when we wash our hands in a ritual way, we sanctify ourselves…we ready ourselves for our service of God…We will not be judged for death if we do not comply, but we imbue our everyday practices with Kedusha when we do. Even the simple act of washing our hands, one that we may perform as a matter of course, therefore should function to wake us up to pay attention to all our activities to follow, in the service of God.