In continuing its description of the artifacts that were to be placed in
the mishkan, the Torah informs us regarding the kiyor – the type of laver
or fountain that was installed in the courtyard of the mishkan and later
the Temple in Jerusalem. This kiyor was used by the kohanim – the priestly
descendants of Aharon – to wash their hands and feet before entering the
mishkan or Temple to begin their daily service to God and to Israel. This
washing of hands and feet was not only a matter of cleanliness but it was
also a symbolic ritual of preparation for holy service. The washing of the
hands of the kohanim remains a ritual till today, when their hands are
washed in water before they ascend the podium to bless the congregation.
In fact, washing one’s hands in a ritual fashion no matter how clean or
sterile they are remains a daily part of Jewish life for us all. Before we
eat bread we must wash our hands. The washing of our hands is part of the
order of the Seder service on Pesach night. When we arise in the morning,
we wash our hands. Before prayer services we are also bidden to wash our
hands. And when we have completed dealing with our bodily functions we are
also instructed to wash our hands. Again, these are not only matters of
cleanliness, though cleanliness is a prime virtue in Jewish life, but
there is a ritual, spiritual and holy attachment to the washing of hands.
There is an important message implied in this hand-washing regimen of
Judaism. It is to impress upon the person the holiness of everything in
life and that all that we do is really in service of God. The phrase that
was used throughout the Jewish world by the “wakers” in the early morning
was “Arise to the service of God.” But the service of God requires an
appreciation and understanding that we are in fact serving God in our
daily lives. Otherwise, without that realization, everything in life
becomes prosaic and mundane, habitual rote and sometimes even meaningless.
The fact that we are bidden to wash our hands before or after performing
many of the most mundane things in life – eating, awaking, dealing with
our bodily functions, etc. – reminds us that nothing in life is ordinary,
profane or mundane.
Everything is important. Everything is part of the service that we owe to
our Creator. Everything therefore requires a sense of purpose and
dedication, an understanding of the challenges that life puts before us
and that we are commanded to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Washing one’s hands is a reminder of this challenge and obligation. Just
as the kohain in the Temple had to remind himself daily of the holiness
inherent in the performance of his tasks in the Temple by washing his
hands and feet before entering upon his daily regimen of work in the
Temple, so too are we bidden by the ritual of washing our hands numerous
times during the day to remember our duties and challenges to create
holiness and spirituality in our everyday lives and affairs. Thus the
kiyor and its message survive amongst all of us even today.