Washing our hands is an ancient Jewish practice, going back to the days of the Temple, when the priests purified themselves before performing rituals. Today, we are also called to wash and purify our hands before we perform rituals such as the ones during the Passover seder three times: No matter how many times we wash your hands during the seder, this kavannah will bring important intention to our ritual washings.
While our modern lifestyle brings water to our fingertips with the turn of a knob, we often don’t appreciate where our water comes from, and the labor involved in making it so accessible. In our time of climate change, volatile temperatures, drought and sudden floods, the Passover
Seder offers us an opportunity to be truly mindful about the water that flows to us with such abundance, through the act of handwashing.
A beautiful story about Rabbi Salantar, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, directs our mindfulness:
A wealthy, religious Jew once invited Rabbi Salanter to his home. The host was proud and excited to entertain such a prominent scholar. He carefully shadowed his guest hoping to witness acts of outstanding piety. But he was disappointed. When the time came to wash for dinner, the rabbi used the barest minimum amount of water and when he took his place for the Sabbath meal, he ate briskly, barely stopping to sing Sabbath hymns and recite words of Torah.
Eventually, the host could contain his disappointment no longer. “Why did you use so little water to wash and why did you rush through the meal?” he asked. The rabbi looked at him and said, “When I came to your house, I noticed the elderly maid who had to walk to the end of the garden to draw heavy buckets of water from the well. I did not want to trouble her to work harder than she already does, so I used as little water as I could to wash my hands. I also saw that while we ate our Friday night meal, she was waiting patiently to return home and eat dinner with her family. I hurried so that we would not unnecessarily delay her.”
This story about Rabbi Salanter teaches that we should strive to cause the least amount of suffering when we perform our religious duties. This includes being kind to both people and our planet. Kindness to our planet is no more or less important than being kind to people.
Shirley Temple learns one way to wash your hands
Try cultivating mindfulness about caring for our planet and enacting this value by using less water than usual when washing your hands during the seder. Maybe dip your fingers into a bowl of water (instead of the traditional ritual of pouring a full cup over your hands). Bring mindfulness to this moment by reciting the following kavannah as you wash: