Ma’asei yadeinu – deeds done with our hands – are very much on my mind as Shabbat Tetzaveh approaches. I’ve spent today (Thursday) walking in Memphis, much of it at the site of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and now the National Civil Rights Museum. In 1968, the Lorraine served Memphis’s large African American community, sitting a block off of Main Street, then the bustling central artery of a vibrant neighborhood. A half century later, signs of gentrification abound; Main Street now boasts art galleries, coffeehouses, hotels in waiting, and a number of museums, all of them dedicated to aspects of the African American experience.
The museum at the Lorraine tells the four hundred year story of that experience with a special emphasis on the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s leadership. The exhibit is exhaustive, powerful, and extraordinarily moving. Visit, if you haven’t already; it is worth the journey. In great detail, the National Civil Rights Museum makes clear that the African American struggle for equality and liberty, an effort that began with the enslavement of the first Africans in North America in 1619, has always been the work of many hands. Dr. King never operated alone. He led a movement whose workers were many; the hands of many produced the advances of the King years of 1955-1968. The famous photo of Dr. King’s aides and advisors pointing out the spot from which the bullet that killed him had come poignantly illustrates the point.
Across the street, in a building that was once the boarding house in which James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, took a room in April of 1968, the museum’s exhibit continues. Standing by the windows that directly faced room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, I thought a lot about the work of that one man’s hands, the criminal, murderous, painfully destructive, history altering work of one man’s hands.
We make our offerings, for good or for ill, with our hands. The Torah’s description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests includes a lovely detail. The fat parts of the ram of ordination, the sacrificial offering that marks the sacred occasion, along with the animal’s right thigh, are gathered together along with “one flat loaf of bread, one cake of oil bread, and one wafer” in order to be placed “on the palms of Aaron and his sons.” The ram is presented as an elevation offering – tenufa – according to a rather precise procedure. “Take them from their hands and turn them into smoke upon the altar with the burnt offering, as a pleasing odor before the Lord; it is an offering by fire to the Lord.” A proper elevation offering requires that the offerer present the sacrifice with her/his own hands. Life changing work can’t be outsourced, an insight not unique to the Torah and Israelite religion. Witness an ancient Egyptian and a 16th century Aztec version of the same idea.
Literary theorist Jacques Derrida describes the work of one’s hands as a “singular and immemorial archive.” Each of us makes a unique contribution. Every offering is singular. And every offering leaves its mark. The Psalmist’s plaintive prayer resonates still. “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands (ma’asei yadeinu) prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” [Psalms 90:17]