Avraham ben Avraham was originally known as Count Valentin Potocki. Born into a family of Polish nobility, he was sent to France to study. Along the way, he met an old Jew, who owned a wine shop. They began discussing the Bible, and Potocki became enamored with the Jewish tradition. He decided to convert, initially moving to Amsterdam, where it was permissible to live as a Jew-by-choice.
Eventually, however, he returned to Poland, but the authorities signalled that they would stop at nothing to punish him. He tried hiding in the synagogue in Vilna, but fearing they would find him, he later made his way to a small town, where he grew his beard and concealed himself amongst the members of the Kollel, learning Torah, day and night. However, one of the locals identified him, and he was arrested. He was tortured and eventually killed.
Upon his death, the Vilna Gaon declared that the forces of impurity had been weakened in the world on account of Avraham ben Avraham’s extraordinary Kiddush Hashem. Consequently, while chasidim tend to wash their hands at their bedside upon waking in the morning, the Litvishe minhag is that one may walk to the sink to wash negel vasser.
אָמַר רַבִּי מוּנָא מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי יְהוּדָה: יָד לַגִּיגִית — תִּיקָּצֵץ. תַּנְיָא, רַבִּי נָתָן אוֹמֵר: בַּת חוֹרִין הִיא זוֹ וּמַקְפֶּדֶת עַד שֶׁיִּרְחוֹץ יָדָיו שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים
Rabbi Mona said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda: The hand that is placed into a barrel [of beer, prior to washing one’s hand in the morning] should be severed. It was taught: Rabbi Nasan says: It [the evil spirit] is a free agent, and it refuses to leave until one washes his hands three times.
Why does Rabbi Mona refer to a barrel of beer, specifically? The Ben Yehoyada explains that the Gemara is talking about a fellow who goes into his beer production facility to move about the dates or grains so that they ferment well and do not spoil. His first concern upon arising in the morning is to check on his merchandise. The Aruch maintains that the implication of the Gemara is that he is having a drink of beer, first thing. The more he does so, the less merchandise he will have to sell.
Rabbi Mona’s message is all about daily priorities. What’s the first thing on our mind when we get out of bed in the morning? Is it checking on our business affairs? Is it checking the stock market? Is it checking the news from around the world?
There’s no end to the ‘important’ matters we could be taking care of. That’s why Rabbi Nasan refers to the evil spirit that rests upon one’s hands prior to washing as a free agent. It will continue to engage in activities that it deems important until you wash it away and prepare yourself spiritually for the day.
Of course, it doesn’t end at negel vasser. The handwashing ceremony is merely symbolic of the commitment you are making to dedicating yourself to the service of Heaven. Handwashing, when taken seriously, sets the tone for your day. When you imagine yourself as a priest in the Holy Temple, washing your hands in the ritual basin, your day becomes entirely different. You are about to enter the service of God. You’re not about to be distracted by trivialities like the latest horse-race results. You’ve sanctified yourself for holy work.
And that must be your priority first thing in the morning. If you want to enjoy a fruitful day, you need to begin with a fruit-bearing guarantee. Checking the news might feel like an important enterprise, but the world doesn’t change because Jimmy read the newspaper. The world changes when you accomplish something significant.
That’s why it’s important to dedicate time to learning Torah every morning. When you start your day with the feeling of accomplishment of having learned a Daf of Gemara, or a chapter of Tanach, your entire day becomes different. No matter what works or doesn’t work today, no matter what goes right or wrong, you won’t end your day feeling that the day was worthless. You can pat yourself on the back, knowing that you have progressed. It has been a day of accomplishment – you have one more chapter of the Bible to show for your efforts today.
The message of the Aruch is that the moment you run to your beer barrel to check on it is the moment you start depleting your ‘merchandise’ for the day. There’s no guarantee that today will be a good business day. Hopefully it will. But it’s not a given. When you learn Torah, nobody can take that away from you. That’s your spiritual bank account increased for the day. And when you begin your day on a positive note, the rest of the day will flow from there. All of your endeavours will be blessed: the spiritual, the physical, and the material.
Every day begins with a choice: Check your beer barrel or dedicate your hands to heaven. The former might be fruitful, but the latter has guaranteed results. May you start every day with a guaranteed successful venture!