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Toward Shabbat: Ki Tissa

Sometimes life and Torah line up in surprising ways. In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, we encounter a remarkably relevant description of hand washing:

וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ כִּיּ֥וֹר נְחֹ֛שֶׁת וְכַנּ֥וֹ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת לְרָחְצָ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֗וֹ בֵּֽין־אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּבֵ֣ין הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְנָתַתָּ֥ שָׁ֖מָּה מָֽיִם׃ וְרָחֲצ֛וּ אַהֲרֹ֥ן וּבָנָ֖יו מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־רַגְלֵיהֶֽם׃

Make a basin of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn] from it.

—Exodus 30:18-19

The parashah describes the biblical hand washing station and then the sages of the Talmud ask, “How is this hand washing actually done?” Spoiler alert: they don’t sing Happy Birthday.

While ritual hand washing is certainly different from today’s health-related hand washing, the wisdom of our sages speaks across the generations and offers a much-needed message for this current moment.

And so the sages teach in Zevahim 19b:

How is the mitzvah of sanctification of the hands and feet performed? The priest lays his right hand on top of his right foot, and his left hand on top of his left foot, and sanctifies them with the water flowing from the basin. Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: He lays both his hands one on top of the other, and lays them together on top of both his feet, themselves laid one on top of the other, and sanctifies them. They said to him: You have gone too far; it is impossible to do so.

The Gemara notes: They speak well of him; it seems impossible to assume such a position without losing one’s balance. Rav Yosef says: Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, meant that the priest would assume the position while another priest would help him maintain his balance.

Watching the spread of the novel coronavirus these past weeks has been profoundly unsettling. As individuals and as a community, we feel unsteady as we face the uncertainty of what will be. In moments like this, it is helpful to remember the teaching of Rabbi Yosei: We can help each other maintain our balance.


As the situation unfolds, the needs of our community will become more clear and we will have an even better sense of how we can be of support to one another. But we know this: Whether we gather virtually or in person, we remain a community committed to prayer and study and caring for one another. There will be opportunities to keep learning through online classes and stay connected through virtual meetings and conversations. We will keep praying, singing along with the livestream as familiar melodies fill our homes with the sounds of Shabbat at BJ. We can keep taking care of others, regularly checking in with friends and neighbors, volunteering to call homebound seniors, or providing meals for those who need them. We can include the names of those affected by COVID-19 and other illnesses in our Mi Sheberakh prayer for healing, offering them spiritual support at this difficult time.

In these ways, and more, we can hold each other up and help each other maintain our balance.

Coronavirus Update

In consultation with public health professionals, we have made the very difficult decision to suspend all in-person programming other than prayer, and we will limit in-person participation in Shabbat Services to prayer leaders, Torah readers, and b’nai mitzvah families.

Mi Sheberakh Healing List

Prayer can be a powerful source of spiritual support. Every Shabbat and holiday, we recite the Mi Sheberakh blessing, a prayer for those who are in need of healing. If you would like to add someone to the list so the community can pray on their behalf, click the button. The list is confidential and names are read silently during the prayer.