According to Judaism, when one is asleep, it is a mini-death experience, a mini separation of soul from body. A person's soul somewhat returns to its Source, and the side of him that stays here experiences a state of loss.
In death, the body, which had been the vehicle for the soul during life, is now nothing but inanimate matter. It was previously a conduit for building the soul's Divine relationship with God and carrying out Divine Service, and now it is but flesh and bones, headed back into the ground.
Spiritually, there is an energy that takes hold when there is such a loss of potential. This energy is called tumah. The word "impurity" has negative connotations nowadays. People have come to associate it with the words "dirty," "degrading," and "disgusting." However, more accurately tumah is simply the spiritual state that is experienced when there is a loss of potential.
Sleep is only a mini-death experience, so instead of affecting the entire body, it only affects a portion of it—the hands. Since the hands are the staple of building, growth, and activity, they are also the staple for the loss of potential building, growth, and activity. Therefore, the tumah energy "enters" the body through the hands, and it is for this reason that the tumah that comes to a person while asleep only goes as far as the hands.
The Morning Cup of Coffee
Imagine an aspiring businessman wakes up early in the morning in preparation for a 9:00 a.m. meeting at the office. He is presenting to a group of executives, and—who knows—it could be that this presentation will lead to the big break in his career that he's been waiting for! As in any high-quality presentation, he will want to communicate points in a clear and defined manner and make a powerful impression.
However, this guy has a problem. Every morning this guy wakes up groggy and irritable. He snaps at people and is often a complete grump in the day's early going. Obviously, this presents a difficulty that could easily get in the way of clear communication and a successful presentation. However, for this aspiring businessman, there is one remedy to the grogginess and grumpiness—the morning cup of coffee. Whatever comes between our guy and clear communication is swept away by the coffee crystals.
Similarly, we each want to come across clearly in this world; we want to express and bring forth who we really are from the realm of potential to the realm of actualization.
Tumah causes a block between spiritual potential and spiritual actualization. Obviously, in many cases (such as sleep) this block is unavoidable. Nevertheless, in a world in which our purpose is to grow into our true soul-selves and bring out Divine awareness, lack of growth and lack of Divine awareness are the antitheses.
Defining Good and Evil
In a sense, this is how we would define Evil in Jewish terms. That is to say, whether or not something is Good or Evil is determined based on the backdrop of the reality of who we are and what we are doing here. Once we have a clear understanding that we are each a Godly soul whose essence is revealed though manifesting God, Good and Evil become clearly defined: Good is that which brings out our soul-essence and manifests Godliness whereas Evil is that which constricts our soul-essence thereby hiding Godliness. Perhaps, for this reason, tumah has also been referred to as ruach ra'ah, Evil Atmosphere; it is the spiritual grogginess born from loss of potential that often gets in the way of true expression of the Divine soul-self.
Once waking up, therefore, Judaism states that we should wash our hands. In a sense, washing the hands is spiritual coffee; it washes away the spiritual atmosphere of grogginess that comes in the way of the true expression of one's Divinity and nourishes a fertile foundation for spiritual life and growth, just as water functions to physically wash, nourish, and facilitate life and growth.
In this column we expounded on the Kabbalistic overview of Hand Washing, and in the next column we will get into the Kabbalistic relevance behind some of the particular details involved in Hand Washing.