You are the High Priest (Shabbos 108)

The Vilna Gaon used to keep a little notebook by his bedside table.  Each night, prior to retiring, he would conduct a stocktake of his day, reviewing each hour, minute, and second.  If there was an ever-so-short period in the day that he could not account for, he would write it down in the notebook.  At the end of the year, right before Rosh Hashanah, he would take out his notebook and do teshuvah, repenting for every unexplained moment.

אָמַר רַבִּי מוּנָא מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי יְהוּדָה: יָד לָעַיִן — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לַחוֹטֶם — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לַפֶּה — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לָאוֹזֶן — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לַחֲסוּדָה — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לָאַמָּה — תִּיקָּצֵץ. יָד לְפִי טַבַּעַת — תִּיקָּצֵץ.
יד לעין – שחרית קודם שיטול ידיו
תיקצץ – נוח לו שתקצץ שרוח רעה שורה על היד ומסמתו וכן כולן

Rabbi Mona said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda: The hand that touches the eye should be severed. The hand that touches the nose should be severed. The hand that touches the mouth should be severed. The hand that touches the ear should be severed. The hand that touches one’s wound should be severed. The hand that touches one’s organ should be severed. The hand that touches one’s glutes should be severed.

Rashi: In the morning, prior to washing one’s hands.  It would be preferable to have one’s hand severed, for an evil spirit rests upon the hand and can cause blindness, and similarly for each case.

Our Sages teach (Brachos 57b) that sleep is equivalent to one sixtieth of death.  What they mean is that when one is asleep one cannot achieve one’s mission in this world, which is the performance of mitzvos.  A body without a soul is no longer able to accomplish anything positive in this world.  So too, one who is asleep is restricted in their ability to produce.

When the soul is completely active, it energizes the body it occupies.  When that soul, or part of it, returns to its Creator to be refreshed and revitalized, forces of the ‘other side’ fill the void (Zohar 1:184:2).  First thing in the morning, when the soul returns in its entirety to the body, we symbolically wash away these forces of impurity.

People who don’t wash negel vasser in the morning don’t literally go blind.  But they do signal their spiritual blindness. Just like we wash our hands prior to eating bread, emulating the priestly handwashing prior to partaking of the tithes, so too, the Rashba explains, we wash our hands in the morning emulating the priestly handwashing prior to their Temple service.  Drifting straight from a state of sleep to one’s daily duties fails to recognize the incredible transformation that has taken place between the two modes of physical and mental awareness.

When you wash your hands, you declare, ‘Hashem, I am here and ready to serve you in ways that I wasn’t able to for the last number of hours.  I am dedicating myself to you, just as the High Priest in the Holy Temple.’

Why do we wash our hands, specifically? Because they represent our ability to act. We ‘perform’ mitzvos with the work of our hands.  All of our bodily faculties are partners with our hands in the service of Heaven.  That’s why the Gemara mentions each part of the body.  Our handwashing benefits each of them, as they are now able to work in tandem to serve God.  When the eye sees a poor person, the hand can help them.  When the ear hears of someone suffering, the hand can act to relieve their pain.  The hand performs actions that will reverberate for generations, as represented by the organ.  And the hand chooses which items in this world to filter out, represented by the glutes.

As you enter your day, the key perspective to keep at the forefront of your mind is that you are a holy priest.  Every action you engage in today, you are standing in the Holy Temple, serving the Almighty.  When you washed your hands upon arising, you prepared yourself for His service.  You dedicated yourself to being your very best to carry out your heavenly duties.

Do you need to wash your hands again before praying?  That all depends.  If you remained focused on your mission between the time of first washing and the commencement of your prayers, then you need not wash again. If you lost focus, you need to rededicate yourself.

When you’re working in the Temple, every moment is precious.  This world is God’s Temple.  Just like the Vilna Gaon, we must stay focused on the mission and strive to make every moment count.  May all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.