Community Blog The Work of Our Hands

By Shani Rosenbaum
two hands

A number of years ago, I had my first opportunity to travel in Europe, and made a three-day stop in Rome. What I remember as most striking in my time there was that everywhere I looked, just walking down the street, there was massive, mind-blowing art: intricate human forms carved into the sides of buildings; an elaborate fountain rising up in the middle of a town square; without even stepping into a museum, I was faced with a kind of grandeur I had only ever experienced as emerging from the natural world.

And it was this particular point that startled me most – that such a feeling of wonder should be awakened in me by something humans created. It was not a mountain or a tree, not a vista or a starry expanse that had touched and moved me this way—it was something a human had made; the work of our own hands.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hands.

Not only because, despite being thrilled to meet every one of you—I was not planning to shake any hands this weekend. But our parsha, too, is particularly interested in what we do—or don’t do—with our hands.

With all that goes down in Parshat Ki Tissa, it’s hard to ignore the earth-shattering centrality of the story of the golden calf. It is a troubling and terrifying story, leaving not a few questions in its wake. How is it that the Israelites, so soon after their miraculous liberation, fall so quickly into worshipping a thing of gold?

Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, the 18th-century Hasidic teacher, offers some unique insight into this question, with a particular focus on the role of the Israelites’ hands.

Rabbi Nahman opens with his own question: how can the truth of Torah enter this complicated world without being corrupted, turned twisted and cruel? There must be, he muses, some layers of protection for Torah, to keep its message whole and untainted. One of those protections, says Rabbi Nahman, is emunah— the steady faithfulness, the trust of the Jewish people who receive Torah’s teachings. This emunah, he teaches, is represented by our receiving hands.

What is it about hands, that evoke emunah – faithfulness, trust?

Rabbi Nahman reminds us of the story we read just this week on Purim morning —when Amalek attacks the Israelites in the place they are most defenseless. There, it is Moshe’s hands that assure the Israelites’ victory. When Moshe raises his hands—the Israelites prevail; when he lowers them—the Amalekim overcome them. So Aharon and Hur sit Moshe on a rock, and support his hands on each side; in this way, the Torah tells us, Yadav lo emunah—Moshe’s hands are a source of faith for the Israelites, a steady support until they are safe.

From here Rabbi Nahman learns that our hands are a vehicle for faith. They are a symbol of steadfastness, of moving through difficulty with unwavering commitment to what we value and hold true.

But emunah, warns Nahman, can easily morph into its opposite. The same hands that drive us toward the reassurance of faith, can also open doors of deceit, and form the substance of idolatry.

Let’s watch this play out in our parsha. Moshe has disappeared into a thick cloud atop a mountain. Over a month passes, and a nervousness descends on the camp. The Israelites begin to murmur, begin to panic, and a crowd ends up at Aaron’s doorstep.

Make us a god! they demand.

And Aaron thinks, these people need something to do with their hands.

Like a good substitute teacher who inherited no lesson plan, Aaron grasps for a task that will keep the crowds occupied. “Go find me gold!” he says, and when they reappear, hands full and outstretched, he takes their offerings and casts them into the flames.

At least, this is Aaron’s story. When Moshe approaches him at the end of this episode, Aaron’s defense will seem, to the first-time reader, not particularly convincing. “They gave me the gold, and I hurled it in the fire—and out came this calf!” Aaron claims.

Here I expect, at least, a raised eyebrow from Moshe. But Moshe does not respond to Aaron’s defense at al—which may be why the Zohar, in its mystical midrashic commentary on these verses, takes Aaron at his word.

The Zohar wonders, almost technically: How did this work? How could it happen that Aaron cast the gold into the fire and out came a golden calf?

The Zohar focuses on two words for a clue to this metaphysical puzzle. Vayikach mi- yadam—Aaron took the gold directly from the Israelites’ hands. Had he tossed the gold on the ground first, asserts the Zohar, the mystical power of the hands would have been broken, and no idol would have arisen. But, as Rabbi Nahman warns, there is terrible power in the hands. Our hands can be the source of the steadiest faithfulness, or the fiercest betrayal. The creation of the calf, our first betrayal of our Creator, begins with an itch in our hands.

How far off was Aaron, really, in his response to this crisis? Is it so wrong for the Israelites, who have sat waiting and wondering for 40 days, to want to do something that might move them forward? In the penetrating silence of the desert, in the absence of a God they can reach and touch, in their fear and uncertainty—is it not cruel to leave them empty-handed?

And here is where the tragic irony begins to creep in to our story. At the very moment that Aaron allows the Israelites to craft a new god with their hands, back on the mountain, their true God is laying out plans for the mishkan—a place of hands-on worship—to walk through the desert with them.

We know, because by this time of year, we’ve sat through weeks of Torah readings describing the most intricate details of curtains, tables, and clothes; linens and skins and copper and gold; blood and barbecue; sweet-smelling oils and incense. The Israelites are about to create a breathtaking, multisensory piece of holy art. But the people haven’t heard this yet. There is only silence, and terrifying silence, at the bottom of the mountain.

God has prepared a holy project for the Israelites—a place they can bring their hopes, fear and gratitude, where they can weep and celebrate, where they can reach for the infinite through touching what is very concrete. But the Israelites, in their panic, simply can’t wait for instructions. Instead of seeking wisdom from the Source, they grab for whatever is on the lowest shelf, elbowing each other for a place in line. Anything to escape the feeling of not knowing, to avoid facing the uncertainty. Desperate for emunah—for reassurance that we are not alone—our hands create the lie that will soothe us at any cost.

Perhaps this is why the very last instruction God shares before Moshe descends the mountain, is אך את שבתותי תשמרו—but you must keep my Shabbat. The word “ach,” but, is a bizarre opener to the commandments to observe Shabbat—unless you take into account the profoundly un-Shabbostic nature of all the instructions that come right before. As Rashi tells us, the “but” is to remind us that however enthusiastic we are to complete the mishkan, though we may be working quickly, efficiently, with purpose and focus—the importance of this work does not compete with the even greater importance of laying down our tools for Shabbat.

It’s not that the work of our hands isn’t important; nor should we trivialize the power of a physical space to strike us with awe, to facilitate a concrete connection to the Divine.

But, warns our parsha, if it is reassurance you are seeking—if, like the Israelites, you are אות waiting for a sign—you will not find it in the work of your hands. Only Shabbat is a timeless sign of God’s connection to us. In a moment of terror, if you are—היא לעולם seeking God’s presence, put down your hammer. Put down your phone, your Clorox wipes, your shopping bags. See if you can still that itching in your hands.

Over the past couple of weeks, as the uncertainty brought on by the virus builds, I have been casting around for something to do. Blogs with instructions abound, among them, if we are not careful, the forces of reassuring deceit. Last week John Oliver featured a TV clip where a supposed “doctor” advises—and I could not make this up—that we bring gold into our homes to protect us from COVID-19.

In a slightly more harmless mode, I myself probably overdid it a little stockpiling pasta. Anything to feel I have a little more control.

But what experts have been saying, over and over, is the best thing to do to stop the spread of the virus… is do less. In particular, when it comes to our hands. We are told to keep our hands off our faces, away from our mouths, away from others. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

It is so hard for me—particularly in a moment of stress—to do less with my hands. But lately I am wondering if there isn’t an enormous spiritual opportunity here—to look our fear in the eye, and practice letting go, like we do each Shabbat.

We can’t have Shabbat without having first prepared the chulent. But Shabbat is not the chulent; it’s not about how many kinds of kugel appear at kiddush; it’s not about the beautiful outfit you picked out to wear to shul; it’s not even about how nicely the shaliach tzibbur sang Kabbalat Shabbat. These things are the work of our hands—and they are important offerings that we lay at the altar of Shabbat.

But the presence of God does not dwell in the chulent. It doesn’t even dwell in the kisses we exchange over the chulent. It dwells in the space in between us when we ask, “How was your week?” and really listen. It dwells in the quiet that settles over our homes as we clang down the last pot, light candles, and watch the sweet silent dance of the flames.

Shabbat reminds us that the point is not the work of our hands. The point is the space we create when we let go and feel that holy buzz where work isn’t, something real and present that we cannot touch or see, rises up and settles in our midst. Maybe that something can live with us through our uncertainty and confusion; its constancy something we can reach for when the world outside feels unmoored.

What we learn from the sin of the calf is what we learn from Shabbat itself: if we need to feel assured God is with us, it would serve us to stop using our hands and pay attention instead to the work of God’s hands. This challenging act of gevura, of holy withholding—preparing what we can, and then letting go—does not come easily for most us. Like striving for our most spiritually rich Shabbat, we won’t hit the mark all of the time. The practice is to pause, breathe, and see if we can relax our hands.

ויהי נועם אדני אלהנו עלנו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלנו ומעשה ידינו כוננהו


Shani Rosenbaum is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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