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Parashat Pinhas

July 14, 2011

By Peter Levy

Parashat Pinhas

My wife, Amy, and I just returned from opening day at the URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington,  Massachusetts. It was wonderful to see kids gathering together and greeting each other after months of separation. They had kept in touch via Facebook and other social media over the winter, but the physical proximity was what made it special. It was heart-warming to see the campers hugging each other in greeting.However, we also learned about something called a “sideways hug.”  Apparently this is the proper way for counselors to hug the campers in order to avoid physical contact that might be construable is “inappropriate.” Yes, physical contact is potentially taboo and needs to be handled delicately.

This is in contrast to our parashah this week, Pinhas.  Here, in Numbers 27:18, Moses is told to ordain Joshua, “v’samakhta et yad’kha alav“, “and lay your hand on him.” The Levites had hands laid on them by the Israelites (Lev. 8:10), hands were also laid on the sacrificial animals before the slaughter (Lev.1:4), and we bless our children on Shabbat by laying our hands on their heads. This physical contact has an air of importance, significance, and holiness about it. Something deep is transmitted or communicated. Just a few weeks ago, we, at AJR, ordained a new group of Rabbis and Cantors, using this age old tradition of S’mikha, the laying on of hands.

The Encyclopedia Judaica points to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, where there is extensive discussion as to who was “authorized” to lay hands on in ordination, whether ordination could take place only in Israel and not in Babylon, who was entitled to ordain, and what authority could be transferred. But there was no question that this act of physical contact for the transmission of something special was sacred and holy. Nowadays, if someone says that they laid hands on a child, the Bureau of Child Services or the police might be called. It is interesting to see the connotation turn 180 degrees.

There has been a curious evolution of contact-less communication and interaction in our modern society.The social media has permeated our society to depths not imaginable even a few years ago.We find that children, these days, are so enmeshed in their electronic communications and interactions that they are becoming less and less able to interact in person.They do not have the ability to decode the facial expressions and nuances of pronunciation that come with this face-to-face contact.

This all seems to reinforce the fact that there is something special about communication through the unique and special thing called touch. Our technophile generation seems to be in constant need of this contact.  Facebook, Twitter, even the archaic Instant Messenger are all, apparently, insufficient efforts to fulfill this need. Every time a new mode of Social Media comes out, it is quickly replaced by another one. Here comes LinkedIn. But why is it that there is always the rush to the new medium? Perhaps it is because the act of actually physically touching cannot ever be replaced, at least not by anything that we have found so far.

In the Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, Mr. Spock dies from extreme radiation exposure. However, immediately before he enters a sure death situation, he performs his Vulcan mind meld and transfers his life essence into Dr. McCoy.He does this through a laying on of a hand, a kind of s’mikha. Would that we all were able to reach into the minds and souls of our loved ones and friends and have the depth of communication that seems to be missing in our society today.

Now I realize that all touching is not as sacred and holy as “semikha”, but it is still an important part of interpersonal communication, one that is all too often missing in so much of today’s society.  I hope to reach ordination and experience this link with the past. What is communicated from the ordainer to the ordinee? Is it the secret handshake? Is it the ultimate punch line? Is it THE SECRET OF ALL SECRETS? Is it the meaning of life? I guess those of us who have not been (or not yet been?) ordained do not know, and those who have, probably will not tell. My only hope is that this ability to “reach out and touch someone” will return to our lexicon and our lives. Whether it is a touch of ordination, a touch of healing or simply a touch of comfort and connection, try it. Don’t be afraid of it. Savor its specialness and its holiness.

James Herriot, the veterinarian and author is quoted as follows: “I have felt cats rubbing their faces against mine and touching my cheek with claws carefully sheathed. These things, to me, are expressions of love.” So folks, sheath your claws and touch someone’s cheek, “v’samakhta et yad’kha al haverekha.


Peter Levy is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.