I Worked at a Hospital. Here’s Why Handwashing is More Than Hygiene.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the world, Who draws us to holy service and instructs us to care for our hands.”

Handwashing has basically become a legal mandate these days. Every Facebook post I see, every newspaper article I read, people are reminding me: WASH YOUR HANDS!

Was it just last week? Two weeks ago? I started singing Happy Birthday twice through to make sure I reached the 20 seconds’ quota of soap and water. But I soon got tired of the tune, so I moved on to Baby Beluga (one of my son’s favorites). Next in the lineup was the chorus of Landslide, then Amazing Grace. I’m not sure when I stopped singing. Perhaps the novelty wore off after I developed an internal 20-second clock. Silently I’d gaze in the mirror at my dry skin, folding my hands in a bored and rhythmic pattern.

Between my son’s school closing and working remotely, not to mention the new shelter-in-place order, I almost forgot – Pesach is coming. It is one of Judaism’s three most holy festivals and yet – however briefly – it slipped my mind.

Forgetting that Pesach is almost upon us is just one symptom I have experienced in the midst of my anxious attention to Facebook posts, newspaper articles, and public shutdowns resulting from COVID-19. Though I am young and healthy, I have found myself struggling with some anxiety throughout the day. One friend is crying, another is in denial. I am trying to find a balance.

In the last few decades, we have experienced collective trauma: from mass shootings to wildfires and hurricanes, and what seems like everything in between. All of us have been affected by these events in some way, as we are surely connected to someone who either survived these incidents, or died as a result of them. And as Jews, we certainly know the impact of collective trauma.

Pesach could not be coming at a better time. We gather at home to sing, drink, eat symbolic foods, and remember the story of how God saved us from slavery. Passover has so many rituals that not only connect us to our past, but also can help us navigate our present situation. We all need to be set free from something – and for many, that something is fear.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain and spiritual care volunteer at the San Francisco Jewish Home, there were very few symptoms of grief I did not witness. And fear was the most common feeling I sat with. Fear of the unknown. Fear of disappointment. Fear of loss. I created rituals with patients and families to counter these fears. I guided belly breaths and humming exercises to activate our parasympathetic nervous systems. I sang, prayed, actively listened, laughed, read Scripture, held hands, and wept. Of course, because I worked in a hospital and nursing home, handwashing was a clinical requirement, but in my experience, it felt more valuable than a simple hygienic exercise – I felt the ritual to be spiritual, too. Upon further reflection, I am starting to see physical cleansing as a spiritual practice.

One of my fondest and earliest memories of celebrating Pesach was waiting earnestly to hear the word Urchatz (washing the hands), and feeling a great sense of pride as my cousin and I shared the duty of this ritual. We walked around the table slowly – one of us balancing a pitcher and bowl, the other holding a towel – washing the hands of our seder guests. The routine of this quiet parade around the table felt to me like holiness.

I am struck by how ubiquitous conversations about handwashing are these days, but I don’t want to miss that it is also holy work. Pesach is not the only place we experience ritual water. We symbolically throw our sins into an ocean or lake for Tashlich (Rosh Hashanah ceremony) and we dip into a private running stream for mikvah (purification ritual). Dozens of images of cleansing with water appear throughout the Torah, Prophets, Writings, and New Testament.

I love how Jewish practice manages to hold its meaning and still be adaptable. My friend posted a Hebrew song to social media and wrote: “Sung three times, you’ll get to twenty seconds! Kol haKavod [good job] to all who are washing their hands to protect their neighbors!” It sparked a chord inside me. I had not even considered including God in my recently obsessive handwashing ritual. Pesach is a great reminder that this can be a beautiful spiritual practice.

Amidst global anxiety and the realization of just how interconnected we are, I find that praying “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the world, Who draws us to holy service and
instructs us to care for our hands” helps me stay grounded. If recited twice, it takes twenty seconds. I am dedicating my handwashing to prayer. I’m reminding myself that I am washing my hands for myself and for those around me.

I encourage us all to find meaning in our handwashing, to breathe big belly breaths, and, though we are physically distant, to remain spiritually and emotionally close this Passover season and beyond.

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ISSUES articles represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of Jews for Jesus.

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