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Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

Words from Rabbi Linda's Teacher to Her Students and Alumni

Hevre. I thought we could all use a word of Torah as we head into Shabbat in this very complicated time.

Social distancing is the phrase that we are hearing. We are finding ways to greet each other without shaking hands, without touching. We are doing our best to follow these guidelines as we desperately want to protect ourselves, our loved ones, each other, our larger communities, and anyone we can, from becoming a victim of the pandemic.

I find it fascinating to see how very difficult it is for us not to touch each other’s hands. One would think that shaking hands is a mere formality. We are taught about strong handshakes and weak handshakes particularly in professional contexts. But here we are, being told not to shake hands, and we are bereft. (Touching elbows doesn’t really do it.) We don’t know how to greet each other. We don’t know how to give up on that human to human hand touching.

My mind always goes to the Bible when I think about issues like these. The first place I went is to the Hagar story. When Hagar and Ishmael are dying in the wilderness after being expelled from Abraham’s house, Hagar experiences a revelation, and is told to go to her son, v’hahaziqi et yadekh bo, and hold him with her hands (Genesis 21:18) She was told to connect with him by using her hands. I always love this verse. God is, in essence, giving Hagar advice on what she needs to do as a parent to care for her son, she needs to hold him in her arms and comfort him. The touching was part of the comforting and connection.

God’s greatest act of interaction with Israel, the Exodus, is described as God taking Israel out of Egypt b’hozeq yad – with a strong hand (Exodus 13:3). This redemptive measure is carried out via God’s hand grasping Israel, relating to Israel. This makes clear why it is so difficult for us to not shake hands. We see that hand touching as the basis of our connection and the symbol of our relationship.

The Bible, however, gives us another model of relationship as well. When Jacob’s sons talk about Jacob’s closeness with his son Benjamin, his last remaining tie to his beloved Rachel and Joseph, the language used is v’nafsho qeshurah b’nafsho, his soul is intertwined with his soul, or his being is connected to his being. (Genesis 44: 30). There is no mention of hands. Jonathan’s very deep and devoted love for David, is described as v’nefesh Yehonatan niqsherah b’nefesh David – Jonathan’s soul/being was intertwined with David’s soul/being.

In this time of pandemic when we are unable to touch hands, and when we are told to be socially distant, we need to follow the alternate biblical model of love and association, we must act as nefashot keshurot, connected by our beings, our very essence. We must express our deep love and devotion through intertwined souls.

Wishing all of us good health.

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781