At the beginning of football (soccer) games and many other sports, before play commences the opposition players and teams will shake hands with each other. In the context of sports one can imagine that the handshake is symbolic of the fact that all the competitors will play fairly. This symbolism appears to be supported by most theories on the origin of the handshake. I was watching the film Contagion this weekend, and Lawrence Fishburne’s character explained the source of the handshake saying: ‘it was a way of showing a stranger that you weren’t carrying a weapon in the old days … You offered your empty right hand, to show that you meant no harm’. It is interesting to consider the power of approaching another person with an open hand and what it can represent.
In this week’s Torah portion there is clearly concern about whether our hands are open or closed. As Moses continues his farewell speech to the people, preparing them for life in the Promised Land, he recounts the laws of the Sabbatical year. The concern this time is about lending money and people falling into a situation of poverty. Moses instructs the people: ‘If there is among you a poor person of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which Adonai your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother’ (Deuteronomy 15:7). The response to poverty comes from the heart and the hand.
And it is not just a negative commandment, the positive imperative follows: ‘You shall surely open your hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks’ (Deuteronomy 15:8). The Hebrew of this verse emphasizes the importance of opening the hands as it says ‘patoach tiftach et yadecha’, it is hard to accurately translate these words as it uses the Hebrew root for opening peh-tav-chet twice in patoach tiftach, ensuring that there is no doubt that the hands must be opened.
The Torah therefore suggests a double response when one encounters poverty. First we must be moved by what we see. We cannot harden our hearts when we encounter people who are less fortunate than we are, when we see the poor living amongst us we should want to help. And once our hearts have been moved, we must not close our hands, we must open them wide to help those who are in need.
At no point are we told that we should open up our hearts, instead we are told to open our hands. I think that the double emphasis of the word ‘open’ is an indication that there are two ways in which we must open our hands to those who are less fortunate than us. We must open our hands to offer them the financial support which is needed, but we must also open our hands to offer them the support which comes from a warm embrace, a helping hand and an outstretched arm. In this way the open hand is not just a way of showing that you mean no harm, it is actually a way of positively demonstrating a desire to help another person.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: