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  • Writer's pictureUriel

We’re A Handful!

What our hands tell us about the origins of our humanity, and its nature... A tale for the Jewish High Holy Days

The Jewish High Holy Days starts with Rosh HaShana (literally, the Head of the Year). It marks the beginning of another year, but according to tradition it's also an anniversary – for the creation of mankind. True, humanity was not created but evolved, it’s slightly older than 5783 years, and some may say its emergence doesn’t exactly call for celebration. Still, this is an apt moment to wonder about how we came to be, and what we’ve become.

How did we start? What made for the genesis of all that is distinctively human?

The hand that rocks the cradle

A hominid, hungry and heartbroken, takes a walk on a hot December day from the Cradle of Humankind, along Crocodile River to Magic Waters, where he stops to wash the tears from his face. Extending his hand to the pond, he stops short – in the sparkling waters, he sees a salty tear running down his cheek, and realizes that he’s looking at himself.

This is one way I like to imagine humanity’s birth, in a silent moment of sad self-reflection. But perhaps it wasn’t sight, or sound, that was the cradle of humanity, nor taste or smell – but touch. Whether or not humanity commenced in nature’s reflection pools, we don’t need to catch ourselves in the mirror to remind ourselves of our humanity. Simply look at your hand. Now use your thumb to touch, one by one, each of the pads of your fingers. That’s it, congratulations – you’re human!

Shall we read our hands? Granted, tracing our palms to divine our future (palmistry) might be a bit bogus. I should know. With Fire hands, an Earth sign with western astrology and a Water sign with the Chinese, I really need some Air… Still, perhaps we can read our hands to better know our past, and present.

Long Thumbs Up

Humanity and humility, like history, may rhyme, but too rarely correspond. When we look at our exceptional hands, we should also recall that we’re not that special, and remember where it all began. For one, we are not the only ones to enjoy opposable thumbs. Most apes sport them – such hands can be quite handy when you’re into hugging trees. But some great apes are more into trees than others and handle them accordingly. And so, while the chimpanzees, genetically, are our closest living relatives, the gorilla, like us, spends much less time up there, and its hand is indeed more like ours.

Moreover, our 2-million year old ancestors already started developing our distinct hand dexterity: a long thumb and shorter fingers that enables that nice feat - touching with our thumb each of our fingers' pads. Our thumb-up hand also allows us to firmly grasp and manipulate objects – and ourselves. In fact, the first species to create cave art may well have been our discarded relatives, the Neanderthals, some 64,000 years ago, who painted animals, signs – and their own hands.

Step outside the cave and about 200,000 years ago, a cool 12-year kid was having fun making some prehistoric hand graffiti in what is now Quesang, Tibet.

Since then, we’ve come a long way, our handprints are all over Earth.

The hand that extends

While the Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh HaShana, it ends with Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing with the Torah,” marking the completion of one Torah reading cycle and the beginning of a new one.

Returning to Genesis, the first mention of "hand" in the Bible is ominous:

And God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22).

God is troubled. If His hands made humans, the latter's hands just recreated themselves to become Godlike in one crucial sense: Gaining (or suffering) the freedom of moral choice. The Homo faber ("working man") making the Homo sapiens?

Perhaps with the help of Homo ludens, the "playful man," though if the Bible got humanity’s birth right, the first self-aware man was a woman. Supposedly made from Adam’s rib, Eve’s first physical act is extending her hand, first to touch, then to eat from, the forbidden fruit, finally offering it to Adam.

From cave art to early modern art, look at Goltzius’ Adam and Eve (1613), a pair of portraits that prominently feature the couple’s hands, apart.

The right hands are theirs – and Goltzius’. When he was a year-old baby, Goltzius touched fire and was left with severe burns that crippled his right hand. Becoming an artist, one of the most famous of his generation, Goltzius drew with his left hand, but engraved exclusively with his right. In Adam and Eve, one hand portrays the other, telling a story of imperfect Creation: of the artist, of the first humans, and of God.

Eve’s and Goltzius’ extended hands, touching curious freedom and creative fire, bring to mind a beautiful passage by Jacques Lacan (in Seminar VIII, Transference):

“The hand that extends toward the fruit, the rose, or the log that suddenly bursts into flames – its gesture of reaching, drawing close, or stirring up is closely related to the ripening of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, and the blazing of the log. If, in the movement of reaching, drawing, or stirring, the hand goes far enough toward the object that another hand comes out of the fruit, flower, or log and extends toward your hand – and at that moment your hand freezes in the closed plenitude of the fruit, in the open plenitude of the flower, or in the explosion of a log which bursts into flames – then what is produced is love.”

How rare this moment is, how much one craves for it to last forever… Can the holding of hands overcome the drive to gain the upper hand? A couple of years ago, I translated my favorite Hebrew poem, by Rachel, my favorite poet:

Locked Garden [גן נעול] [Hebrew original]

Who are you? Why hand extended, does not meet a sister hand?

And eyes linger just a moment and are already lowered, abashed.

A locked garden, no path, nor way into it A locked garden – human. Shall I leave? or strike the rock till bleeding?

Talking Heads - Dead Hand?

If love is the fiery meeting of hands, forged in the freedom gained by the forbidden fruit, what then of one hand in a romantic encounter, quantumly quivering like Schrödinger’s cat between dread and desire?

From Lacan to his French contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, who tells of that particular hand, belonging to a woman on a first date. She knows the man’s intentions, now apparent: he reaches out to hold her hand. What to do? Leaving her hand is consenting, withdrawing it is rejection. But she’s not ready to make the choice. So –

“The young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not notice because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the loftiest regions of sentimental speculation; she speaks of Life, of her life, she shows herself in her essential aspect—a personality, a consciousness. And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion—neither consenting nor resisting—a thing. We shall say this woman is in bad faith.”

One readily wonders if Sartre would have told the same story of one man’s hand. More importantly, however, for the woman, and Sartre, the head chats about “Life, her life,” while the hand is dead. It is as if by intellectually engaging life, we’re more relaxed about physically disengaging it, ourselves – foregoing the courage to choose.

Worse: Too often, intellectually engaging life means portraying people as puppets, pushed and pulled by forces that leave them – us – no choice: moved by rational cost-benefit calculations (homo economicus), by our emotions (homo psychologicus), by social norms (homo sociologicus) and by our genes (homo biologicus). These four heuristics – features humans share with animals and machines – are partly true, but bar freedom, they are nothing but bad faith, a daily crime against our humanity.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere 1935
M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere 1935

Perhaps we can fight bad faith by looking at our hands. Like the misbaha prayer beads Muslims use, moving each bead with their thumb to count and recall God’s names, use your thumb to touch each of its four neighborly fingers to remember the four heuristics (I guess the middle finger is a perfect candidate for the homo psychologicus). Then look at that exceptional human digit with which you counted them all – your thumb – and reclaim, through freedom, your humanity. Of course, it’s only then that the real troubles begin…

The right hand

Freedom, however good, does not mean doing good. There are wrong, and bad, choices. Whether through freedom or bad faith, and most malignly blending both, human hands are capable of horrors.

I think Nevo was about four or five years old when he started paying closer attention to my road-trip playlist as I was trying to survive Jerusalem traffic while looking at my rearview mirror and wondering what was on his mind. Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand caught his attention – how can it not?! – and wanting to quench the boy's thirst, I developed an elaborate plot about the chronicles or RRH.

It didn’t start with killing butterflies for fun. RRH simply had an intuition that the world is a bad place, that you gotta be tough. He started cheating and stealing, and his hand turned red for the first time. He soon realized that the best way to hide it was to discover the power of controlling people, indeed the power to treat them as his puppets.

In retrospect, I guess, this is when bad faith and freedom entwine into evil, and the redder your right hand, the harder to stop, which makes Cave’s allusion to God's vengeful hand in Milton’s Paradise Lost all the more arresting:

“What if the breath that kindled those grim fires, / Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage, / And plunge us in the flames; or from above / Should intermitted vengeance arm again / His red right hand to plague us?”

If evil is deliberately choosing to treat a person as a “microscopic cog” in one’s “catastrophic plan,” what are we to do about it, how to “turn it off”?

Perhaps we can never turn the pain off, but maybe we can find ways to transform, not terminate, its memory – by language, sight and sound, and by the hand of the right person, extended to caress one human‘s cheek, their face reflected in another human’s kind eye. Look, tear in your hand.

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