Thursday, July 22, 2004

More than Animals, More than Angels

Almost every morning, as part of the morning ritual I've mentioned before, I pick Rachel up out of her crib, say "Modeh Ani," change her diaper, and then take her into the bathroom to "do negel vasser." (Do you believe I couldn't find an adequate link for that term?)

Negel Vasser is the common term for a ritual washing of the hands that Judaism requires at certain points during the day. I think the words are actually Yiddish or German for "nail water," referring to the actual water used to wash the hands, but there's been some semantic spread of the term, so that now "the negel vasser" is the term for the two-handled cup used for that washing, and to "do negel vasser" is to actually engage in the ritual.

What I really need to narrow down for my purposes here, though, is that there are actually two different types of ritual washing of the hands. In the morning, after sleep, and at certain other specific times (to be discussed), a Jew is obligated to pour water over their hands three times, alternately: Right-Left-Right-Left-Right-Left.[fn1] There's also the other kind, which even some pretty non-religious Jews will have experienced at least around Passover time, which is done before eating bread (and praying, and other specific times), which is twice each hand, successively: Right Right Left Left.[fn2]
[fn1:]Right first, for a reason, but that's a whole different post.
[fn2:]Right first again; see fn1.
I want to focus on the first one, and from here on, unless I make it clear otherwise, when I talk about negel vasser I'm referring to that one (RLRLRL).

I do this with Rachel first thing, because I do it for myself first thing. I wake up, say "Modeh Ani," and then go do negel vasser. There's not an Orthodox Jew (hopefully) out there who isn't doing the same thing. And by doing it with Rachel, regularly and consistently and first thing, I'm helping train her into it as well, so that she develops a habit and builds on it, and so that eventually just like I wake up and do certain steps almost automatically, she will, too.

But the important word in that last sentence is almost. Because there's very little (if not nothing) in Judaism that's ritual without meaning. That's always been one of my favorite things about Judaism: even the times you hear, "this is something we can never understand," it's usually just a preamble to, "but let's try to understand it anyway."

So there must be some message behind the act of negel vasser. And by doing the act, I'm enforcing the message. As pop-psych as it sounds, it's nonetheless entirely true that if you wake up every morning and say out loud to yourself, "I'm wonderful," then eventually you start to believe that about yourself. If you wake up, look in the mirror, and say, "I'm ugly," then you'll eventually believe that about yourself, too.

As importantly (if a little tautologically), the action itself is more meaningful if the actor is aware of the meaning. So while I want Rachel to do this almost automatically, it's pretty important that she be aware of the deeper meaning behind what she's doing, first so that she can do it with more joy and understanding (which is axiomatically better) but also to reinforce the action.[fn3]
[fn3:] There's a parable/story about a guy in the Russian (pre-glasnost) Gulag who turns a heavy wheel for years, thinking he's grinding grain for a village, during which time he never cries and never gives up hope. On his release the guards, laughing, inform him that the wheel was connected to nothing; only then does the prisoner break down and weep. It feels weird to quote Nietzsche, but still: "He who has a why can endure any how."
So, if I'm teaching Rachel to do this to herself every morning (setting aside the fact that I do it and G does it every morning as well) then it's important to look at and think about what it is, exactly, I'm teaching Rachel to say to herself every morning.

Basically, negel vasser is done right after waking up from sleep, after going to the bathroom, after touching "private" areas, after touching your shoes (I don't remember if it's just the soles, just leather shoes, or just leather soles), and in a few other situations I don't need to get into.

Usually, the morning negel vasser is explained as a function of washing off the "tumah" (loosely, "impurity") of death that attaches to a person when they sleep. And while I think that's fair, as far as it goes, I don't think it captures the broader nature of negel vasser.

Judaism has this core idea. Angels stand, Men walk. Which is to say that angels are bound to the will of Hashem, and do always and exactly what He "wants" them to do. But it is to humans alone that Hashem gives the ability to choose -- good or evil, closeness or separation.

Of course, the choice we're supposed to make is to move us closer to the angels. Not closer to the angels in the sense of losing free will,[fn4] but closer to the angels in the sense of doing the will of Hashem at any given turn.
[fn4:] Though there is an element of choosing to give up choice. It's a beautiful and deep idea, that deserves its own post, but without going into it too much, I feel safe saying that for the vast majority of people reading this, it's probably true that you've structured your world so you don't have to make a moral choice between, say, killing someone or not; essentially you've chosen to have no choice.
At the same time, Judaism recognizes (and celebrates) the physical aspect of being a human. Much of the daily life of a Jew revolves around celebrating and elevating physical acts.

Eating can be holy. Singing can be holy. Working can be holy. As long as a person is alive, they have that ability to elevate even the most apparently mundane thing to holiness.

How is that elevation achieved? The trick to being alive is to remember that the elevation is possible, that there's a Self, and an animal being, and they're intertwined -- But in the end the Self is in charge.

And death, then, can be understood as the moment the Self separates from the animal being. Without the Self, that ability to elevate and sanctify is lost. Capital-D Death is the permanent[fn5] version. But there are a number of situations where there's a "tam" (taste) of the same thing, where the same loss is perceived, if perhaps only temporarily or partially.
[fn5:] Mostly permanent, anyway. See Principle 13.
That explains the washing. We wash negel vasser at those moments when we are most in danger of mistaking the animal being for the Self.

When we sleep, not only are we unable to consciously think about or even control fully the physical acts we do, but we are engaged in an act that is easily perceived as purely animal. Our higher cognitive functions are tucked away, not turned off but also not interacting with the physical world, and our physical bodies demand rest.[fn6] When we go to the bathroom, we're engaged in a function of the body, and we could easily make the mistake of thinking (as many do) that humans are nothing more than fancy apes with liquid-cooled brains.
[fn6:] That our minds need sleep as well doesn't cut against this. The work our minds are said to do during sleep is sorting, connecting, management, learning… all processes that deal with the input of the day, not that seek more input. Of course the mind and the spirit are still functioning, they don't need rest the same way the body does. They're just disconnected from the physical world so that the body can get the rest it needs.
Yes, there's a part of us that is (one way or another) a fancy ape with a liquid-cooled brain. But there's also a part of us that's higher, and better, and can recognize the miracle that is sleep or going to the bathroom. That's the part that we're in danger of forgetting when we think of ourselves in wholly animal terms.

Our hands are, essentially, the mechanism we use to interact with the world around us. If we interact with the world around us without the awareness of a higher Self governing those interactions, we are walking, moving, and doing, but at the same time we're kind of a little dead.

So we wash our hands. In a specific way for various reasons, I'm sure, but not least to connect it to all the other times we wash our hands in that specific way. So that when I wash after going to the bathroom I realize it's the same message as when I just woke up as when I touched my leather-soled shoes[fn7] as when I touch covered areas of my body as when I do any of the other things that trigger a need to wash in that way.
[fn7:] Briefly, about the shoes. The give-away is Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). On Yom Kippur we don't wear leather-soled shoes because on that day we're supposed to be like angels. Shoes are designed to protect us and separate us a little from the world, so that as we walk (Man walks, remember) we can disconnect from the things that might harm us. Angels see the world for what it is: a perfect and loving gift to us from a kind and loving father. So nothing can harm them, and they don't wear shoes. When we're like them, we recognize the same thing, so we don't either. To bring it home here, touching the shoes is connecting our hands (with which we interact with the world) with the shoes (that disconnect us from the world, because there are things in the world that can hurt us just as there are things in the world that can hurt an animal who doesn't understand the world to be the gift that it is.
By washing my hands, I send myself the message that I am more than the animal version of myself that I've just encountered. That my job in this world is connect this world and all its physical aspects to the higher spiritual reality that I understand exists. And when I've put myself (necessarily) in a situation that might lead to forgetting that, then I'm obligated to remind myself.

When I wash negel vasser in the morning, I'm essentially looking in the mirror and telling myself, "I am holy. I am more than a beast." Hopefully, over time, I'll internalize that message, and truly believe it about myself.

And when I teach Rachel to wash negel vasser, I'm sending her that message, too. As she grows and becomes more independent, I'm also teaching her to wake up in the morning and tell it to herself.

The message behind negel vasser is of holiness, and sanctification. That my daughter is more than an animal, and has potential for infinite greatness. I'm happy to be teaching her that, even in this small way. And I'm especially happy to teach her that she's responsible for teaching it and reteaching it to herself, every day.

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At Jul 23, 2004 1:44:00 AM, Blogger Jay said...

Great post, FrumDad. I appreciate your ability to convey the beauty and depth of Judaism.

At Jul 28, 2004 9:49:00 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

Great post!

By the way, I was taught to wash, under normal circumstances, like this:


I think it's a Chassidish thing. There are some Bostoner customs mixes up in my family minhagim.


At May 6, 2009 5:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just happened to be researching the word "negel vasser" and so happened upon your beautiful blog. Noticed that you wrote you couldn't find a good link about negel vasser - how about's collection of articles? Sorry, I don't know how to make hyperlinks.

Keep up the great blogging!



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