William Hamilton

Spiritual Dexterity: Lessons from Seder washing

Two of the fifteen steps of the Seder require hand washing – before eating the Karpas and the Matzah.  Ritual washing can introduce fresh dimensions to what has become today’s essential, life-saving practice.

The Hebrew word for Seder-washing is rachatz.  In Aramaic the same word means ‘trust’.  Consistent hand washing has become an act we can trust.  The key is consistency.  Doing it again and again.

Rev. Dr. Rachelle Zazzu, a chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens, recently described her approach to adopting a more suitable bedside manner for times like ours when touch and proximity are not possible. “The best coin in my purse that I had to offer was that I kept coming back.”

Ordinarily, ‘showing up’ means we care.  Something more is needed now.  It is our willingness to continually ‘come back’ that makes us worthy of trust. As hospital chaplains develop new modes of making themselves a trusted presence to those under their spiritual care, we can too.

Judaism’s blessing for washing hands includes a verb that means ‘lift’(natal).  It implies the lifting of one’s hands.  Perhaps washing can give a boost to those of us who feel spiritually home-sick.

The Talmud offers a poignant psychological insight. “A captive cannot release her or himself from captivity” (Brachot 5b).  It may take the words of another person to dislodge us from stir-crazy confinement.  It may take the gesture of another person to begin to clear the congested traffic of troubled ideas pilling up in our minds.

The saddest chapter in the Bible from the Lamentations of Jeremiah can provide some empathy. “Someone silently sits alone, awaiting relief from (natal) despair’s low ceiling” (Lam 3:28). Relieving a weighty burden draws upon our verb for hand washing.

Nobody can or should try to wash their hands of honest feelings.  Dismissing feelings never helps.  The next biblical verse suggests a reward for coming face to face with our feelings. “Gorging on the dust, may yet admit entry to glimmers of hope.”    

Speaking of valuing the need to express our emotions, another of our most important needs is often overlooked – the need to feel needed.  Feeling needed promotes our dignity, and dignity is an inalienable human need.  One of the most moving messages I’ve received in recent days concluded with the words: “Stay well.  We need you.”

A final thought comes from the connection between the first and second steps of the Seder.  The ‘u’ in u-r’chatz means ‘and’. So washing can be linked to Kadesh, the holy (the dear to God).  Or it can suggest that washing is always linked to some ‘and’, some additive gesture of spiritual dexterity.

May we elect to make washing lessons from our Seder more spiritually tangible in the servings and helpings we purposefully share.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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