“V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe.” (Deuteronomy 4:44, Numbers 4:37, 45, adapted). Which means: This is the Torah Moses placed before the People Israel, to fulfill the word of God.
We chant these words every Shabbat morning as the Torah scroll is raised high and shown to the congregation. It’s customary to raise our hands together, holding our prayerbooks or the fringe of our tallit upward.
This is one of many Jewish rituals that allows us to express a deeper meaning through our literal actions.
When we light Hanukkah candles for example, we bring the age-old significance of light and miracles into our own lives in a visceral way. When we celebrate Purim, we turn the image of the three-cornered hat worn by the villainous Haman into hamantaschen as a way of celebrating our tenacity with a humorous (and delicious) touch.
And when we stretch our hands toward the Torah, we are affirming that the word of God must be paired with human hands. The sacredness within this scroll grows when our mediation, our interpretation and our questions are brought to bear.
Beshalach tells us a great deal about the vital relationship between the word of God and the hands of human beings through the trajectory of one human being: Moses. We have finally reached the culmination of our liberation story as Moses holds out his hand before the Red Sea, and it miraculously parts. Yet the hand of Moses has long been central to our narrative, working in harmony with God to propel events forward.
In the first chapter of Exodus, Moses witnesses the harsh treatment of the ones he did not even know yet were his people. In a fit of anger, he reaches out his hand and kills the Egyptian taskmaster.
Yes, it can be argued that he was acting recklessly, but at the same time, this part of his story reveals him to be a person of curiosity with a passionate sense of right and wrong. The work of his hands in his early days exiled him from the only home he knew and set him on a journey that would imbue him with purpose and ready him to become whom he was meant to be.
Soon after, Moses is alone in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he experiences a life-changing encounter. God calls him to return to his people and to confront the all-powerful Pharaoh.
Like all our prophets, Moses is filled with trepidation. But God is certain that with all of Moses’ human frailties, he is the right person at the right time.
While our humble leader is not a man of words, his hands again play an important role. They become instruments to show God’s unique power, for every time Moses lifts the rod he holds, a series of plagues are visited upon the Egyptians. The hands that had once taken life now play a role in leading to a new life for his people.
The next time the hands of Moses and the power of God partner is the most arresting. With the Egyptians in pursuit and the sea looming ahead, “Moses held out his arm over the sea … God drove back the sea with a strong dry ground … the Israelites went into the sea … the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:22).
God might just as well have said to Moses, “Walk forward into the unknown, and your hands will be part of creating our greatest miracle yet.”
But as soon as the sea crashed back into place, the Israelites began their litany of complaints about life in the wilderness. God showed Moses a simple piece of wood, which he threw into the waters, turning them sweet.
It is here that the partnership of human hands and God’s word becomes most instructive for us, for we too swim in bitter waters of alienation, of conflict, of grief.
How can we extend our hands still, bringing what sweetness we can? How will we use our hands, our capabilities, our hearts as instruments of caring and repair in this world?
This is the Torah that is placed in our hands again and again. Like our people long ago, we walk forward into an uncertain future. Let our hands be open to God’s presence, and filled with curiosity and compassion as we go.