The Power of Touch

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jewish leadership lately. So, when I picked up the chumash several weeks ago to look at the portion for this Shabbat, and what do I find but Pinhas, the parsha where we get the first picture of how the tradition is passed from one person to another. Here we see how leadership is formally bequeathed and most imortantly, what the qualities of the leader need to be. It is from this narrative that we established the structure of a learning community that still stands today. Here we may find answers to questions such as, “What does it mean to be a rabbi?” “How does the ritual of ordination reveal the tradition’s teaching on leadership?” Remember the context for this. We are in the wilderness and we have just witnessed the violent murders of two people. It is a terrifying time, Moses must leave the people, and we wonder if we’re ready.

Let’s look at the text together: Numbers 27: 15-23. (read) This is a sad Torah scene. God tells Moses to ascend a high mountain to look at the promised land and then he will die. Moses has been an inspired, humble leader with one character defect: he has a terrible temper, and for this he will not see the land. Resignedly, Moses asks God to “appoint a man over the community,” What is interesting is that he calls simply for a man, not not a burning zealot like Pinhas, not even a giant like himself. Just a man.

God replies in verse 18: Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit and lay your hand upon him. Joshua is an ordinary man but he is one who, first of all, knows himself, his own spirit. Only one like this can know what others may need. Like Moses, his training was as a shepherd, the perfect apprenticeship for a leader of spirits and hearts. The shepherd must know the flock. This one has no sense of direction, that one needs encouragement, another separates itself from the flock. You get the idea. Maybe every rabbinical student should spend time with sheep. So Joshua is sensitive not only to his own spirit but to others.

Watch how Moses behaves in the drama. See how in verse 23 Moses lays more than a hand on him, he lays both hands on him: Moses took Joshua and had him stand before Eliezer the priest and before the whole community. He laid his hands upon him and commanded him, as God had spoken to Moses.” Moses demonstrates exemplary grace, in this case, by a generosity of spirit; he gives Joshua twice what God has asked. The reason is simple. Above all, Moses loves God and the people, and it is that love that allows him to make Joshua “a full and heaped up vessel,” as the tradition calls him.

Everybody knows it’s hard to let authority go. Even God. Moses has just been told that he will not enter the place God has chosen for the people. This is a great blow to him, and his response is to let go of everything: “You’re depriving me of what I’ve dreamed of every day for forty years. I get to take a peek and then I die. Fine. Let’s get the whole thing over with now and pick a new leader.”

God softens the blow by telling Moses in verse 20: “Invest him with some of your authority.” Not all. Even now, before your death, share with him, is one way to understand it. But it can also be read that Joshua will never have more than some of Moses’ authority. Moses glowed when he descended the mountain carrying the Ten Commandments. The Talmud says “some authority” means “some radiance.” Moses shone like the sun while Joshua was like the moon. Perhaps it also means that only Moses can be Moses. Only Moses has Moses’ authority. He can give Joshua the mantle but Joshua must learn to be authentic. He must claim the rest of his authority by not being Moses but by being Joshua.

The Hebrew for laying on hands, or touching, is from the root, samech-mem-chet. v’samachta, and you will touch. The word for rabbinic ordination is semicha, because the ritual described here is the basis for ceremony of modern rabbinic ordination. I say modern because, despite the reference in Torah, there seems to be no basis in rabbinic literature for the custom of physical contact as part of a transfer of power. Nevertheless, the Reform Movement and my seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, ordains its rabbis in the ancient tradition with the President of the college placing hands on the one to be ordained and reciting the priestly blessing. As teacher and student touch, so Torah and the future are touched.

We recreate the drama described in the portion not simply for its history but to express the liminal moment when we witness a transformation of identity. Just as the ritual of marriage transforms two into one, so the ceremony of ordination now confers the authority of leadership to one who is committing his or her life to God’s service.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great Orthodox scholar, explains, “Joshua had to lower his head in submission to his master. This was to teach Joshua that even after he became the leader of Israel, he was to realize that he was to remain subservient to Moses, that he must always guide himself by what Moses would have done in a given situation, for a leader of Israel is always a link in the tradition that has come down to us from leader to leader, beginning with Moses and Joshua.” Thus God is revealed through leaders of Israel.

Neither the Orthodox nor Conservative movements have retained the intimate, physical gesture of bowing the head and laying on hands to express the importance of being guided by the tradition represented by one’s teacher. Yet the Reform movement has found the practice to be a key part of its ordination. It is a powerful instrument that confers that which cannot be said or seen, the thread that connects us to the generations of teachers who came before us. To be called rabbi is to say that one has chosen to learn the tradition and to teach it so that it will remain part of humanity. By a physical act, we metaphysically link ourselves to eternity.

When the authority figure, the person ultimately responsible for the ordainee’s training, touches him or her, what is being said that cannot be heard? “I, more knowing and powerful than you, have decided that you are ready to be a Teacher in Israel. My hand on your bowed head, a posture of humility, channels the power given to me when I became ordained. May you remember the Source of all Power and may you feel God’s touch in your work and life. May you experience the satisfaction of making leaders.”

Touching is also a potent reminder, that in our time of virtual communication, there is something holy about our bodies, something that is essential about looking into another’s eyes, about a touch that connects part of me to you. I thought about this when I received an offer to subscribe to TorahFax, a service that provides rabbis with weekly and holiday sermons. I think it’s $200 for the High Holidays. At first I thought this was a good idea for rabbis whose strength is not the sermon; here’s a way to do good teaching. But there’s something wrong, and it’s not the moral dilemma that troubles me, it’s about sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of time and effort, the sacrifice that comes when a rabbi reveals his or her concern, a new idea, or a hope. There is risk in creativity, and I believe that is why Moses put his hands, his being, on Joshua, and asked him to do no less. Put your hands on the people, let them feel your power, your trembling awe: let them know you.

Semikhah is also the word used to consecrate an animal for sacrifice. Semikhah represents the new rabbi’s sacrifice to serve God and the people. One’s time and energy flow now in one direction, to repair the world by living one’s Judaism as a model for others. The work is twofold: first, to bring forth creativity in others by a touch that says, “I believe in you.” Second, a rabbi needs to reveal herself. When my President put her hands on my head, my colleagues, friends and family witnessed not only submission but also my need for a warm and imminent presence. The touch said, “God is holding you.” Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I cannot see God, but I see my mother’s face.” When we are ordained not only with verbal blessing but with the blessing of hands upon us, it is a reminder that we are God’s face, that our work is to be close enough to touch and be touched.