With the Tabernacle’s construction complete, the Torah turns its attention to the laws of the sacrifices. The korbanot (whose Hebrew root letters translate as “close”) described in Vayikra are vehicles for atonement and thanksgiving, creating a relationship with God.
What about the sacrificial system is intended to stimulate a sense of spiritual intimacy with the divine? In the description of the very first sacrifice one curious detail provides us with a clue. When an Israelite offers a sin offering, the olah, “he shall lay his hand (samakh yado) upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” [Lev. 1:4]
It is intriguing that this gesture serves no practical purpose. Semikhah neither holds the animal’s head in place nor massages the animal’s neck to bring out the jugular. One can argue that the service’s more meaningful touchstone occurs when the person making the offering recites a prayer acknowledging their transgression.
While some commentators assert that the laying of the hands ritually demonstrates transference of his sins to the animal as our stand-in for punishment, others explain that this act represents sincere contrition. Through his posture, the penitent demonstrates humility and feels a sensory connection with his surroundings on multiple levels.
Our understanding of this hand-centered sacrificial ritual is enriched by the Hebrew word semikhah’s usages in other biblical contexts. The one most familiar to us is the transfer of authority, such as when Moses appoints Joshua as his successor: “Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him” [Numbers 27:18]. In this iconic and moving encounter, Moses’ hands grant authority to and affirm Israel’s next leader, who will lead the Jewish people to their future destiny. Thousands of years later this is still how rabbis receive their charge.
The Hebrew root of semikhah also translates as support. During the Ashrei prayer, based primarily in Psalms 145, we recite, “God supports (somech) those who have fallen and straightens all those who are bent.” Fervently we pray that God will assist us in our most vulnerable moments, as much when we need to atone as when we feel alone.
On Friday night, when parents bless their children at the Sabbath table, words are coupled with action. This simple gesture constitutes a weekly reunion, a re-set, a reaffirmation of love.
The power of Torah is that a single word can simultaneously convey resonant connotations on many levels. Semikhah has a variety of meanings: the placing of hands, the transfer of authority and mutual love and support. The unifying thread among these concepts is connection.
Soon we will celebrate Passover. Mah Nishtanah: On all other years, Seder provides us with an opportunity to open our doors to anyone who is hungry not just for food, but for community. But this year we regretfully need to remain at home.
Despite our distance, we are together. The connection we share transcends time and space. This year Elijah will go from house to house partaking of the celebration as much as linking our seders to one another.
With the subtle act of semikhah, the Torah teaches how small gestures can be a conduit of connection to God and, equally important, to community. May it be God’s will that we be reunited soon.