Parshat Yitro: “Let Them Wash Their Clothes”

Gaspe Quebec Clothesline by  Carole Spandau

Gaspe Quebec Clothesline by Carole Spandau


I was roughly nine years old when I departed for my first summer at sleep-away camp. My mother had packaged and labeled with detail all of my apparel in neat, Ziploc bags – every piece of clothing assorted and arranged down to the last hour I would be gone. Ten whole days I would venture off to B’nai B’rith Camp, located on the beautiful Oregon coast. Now, to say that camping had a deep-felt impact on my Jewish identity is an understatement (there’s actual sociological data that supports this sentiment). Personally, I relished in the entirety of it all: The freedom. The woods. The inclusivity. The friendships. The connection to Jewish community. The whole experience. I was utterly absorbed. From the very moment I left until the hour I returned home.

And on that fateful day, upon greeting my parents at the bus stop/drop-off point, my mother had a puzzled look on her face. She was curious as to why I was wearing the exact same shirt and shorts I had on when I left. “They must have done his laundry before they sent him back,” she thought to herself. How considerate. But no...She was wrong. When we got home, my mother opened my trunk and surprise! Not a single Ziploc bag had been opened. The assembled packages of clothing remained sealed shut. As if they hadn’t been touched. My toothbrush was as dry as the desert sun. My soap hadn’t left its portable carrying case.

It didn't take long for her to realize that her child had not, in fact, changed his clothes (including his undergarments), showered, or brushed his teeth in ten whole days. Yes. That’s right folks. Ten days. I remember her reaction distinctly. A combination of seething rage and utter bewilderment. Repulsive dismay that her child’s hygiene had gone unchecked for a little under two weeks in the middle of July. Now, in her defense, it’s not as if changing or washing my clothing wasn’t an accustomed ritual in my home. But in my own defense, it sort of slipped through the cracks…

But how could this have happened?! Isn’t changing your clothing merely common sense! How could one possibly fail to perform such perfunctory, routine hygienic responsibilities? No justification could reasonably attest for such sanitary ignorance! Well, to be fair, while growing up, when it came to neglecting basic tasks (including my own health), I was somewhat of a savant (if I do say so myself). Independent living took the full eighteen years, I guess. And according to God, the ultimate Jewish mother, it’s also quite possible that I wasn’t the only “child” who needed reminding to put on a new pair of trousers or put them through the laundry.

As the Children of Israel encamped in various places throughout the wilderness, journeying with Moses as their camp counselor, they find themselves finally ready to meet God. To hear from God directly. To finally put a face to a name. In parshat Yitro the text relates:  

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’ Then Moses reported the people’s words to the LORD, and the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.’” [1]

See. I told you. Even God had to mother his children every now and then. Including commandments to simply do the basics. After all, how embarrassed would Moses be if the “chosen people” showed up to Mt. Sinai smelling of putrid desert sweat. Chas veShalom! (God Forbid!).

According to one commentator: “‘Let them wash their clothes’ from the instruction that they were to wash their clothing, we derive that they were also to immerse their bodies in a ritual bath. Wherever the Torah mentions the requirement to wash one’s clothing, the need to immerse one’s body in a ritual bath is an automatic corollary.” [2]

One might say that this is the equivalent to a good, clean shower before “the big meeting.” It’s also quite possible that this is a distinctly important commandment, not just a suggestion, to retain stringent hygienic systems. Even while in the desert. Because while God can perform miracles and split the ocean, God cannot put your clothing through the wash. God’s can do all sorts of things involving water, but immersion in it he saved for Pharaoh and his army (trust me -not the kind of bath you want to have).

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of hygiene is “the practice of keeping yourself and your surroundings clean, especially in order to prevent illness or the spread of diseases.” While for many of us, this may seem like a clear cut idea: “Prevent illness or the spread of disease.” Simple. Perform the preventative measures to ensure health for you and the surrounding community. No brainer!

Even in the 12th century Maimonides could attest:

“Any hazard that is potentially lethal there is a positive commandment to remove it and to beware of it and to be extremely cautious in this matter as it is stated ‘But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously [Deuteronomy 4:9]’ And if one does not remove them or places obstacles that lead to danger one has violated a positive commandment.” [3]

Unfortunately, in 2019, we are dealing with the ramifications a growing community of “Anti-Vaxxers.” Yes, there are asinine Americans purposefully not vaccinating their children. Which in my opinion is not just a violation of public health, but the transgression of a commandment! In the New York Times article, “How to Inoculate Against Anti-Vaxxers,” the NYT Editorial Board writes:

“The World Health Organization has ranked vaccine hesitancy — the growing resistance to widely available lifesaving vaccines — as one of the top 10 health threats in the world for 2019. That news will not come as a surprise in New York City, where the worst measles outbreak in decades is now underway. Nor in California or Minnesota, where similar outbreaks unfolded in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Nor in Texas, where some 60,000 children remain wholly unvaccinated thanks in part to an aggressive anti-vaccine lobby.”

“Leading global health threats typically are caused by the plagues and perils of low-income countries — but vaccine hesitancy is as American as can be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children who are unvaccinated has quadrupled since 2001, even though the overall utilization of most vaccines remains high. More than 100,000 American infants and toddlers have received no vaccines whatsoever, and millions more have received only some crucial shots.”

“It’s no mystery how we got here. On the internet, anti-vaccine propaganda has outpaced pro-vaccine public health information. The anti-vaxxers, as they are colloquially known, have hundreds of websites promoting their message, a roster of tech- and media-savvy influencers and an aggressive political arm that includes at least a dozen political action committees. Defense against this onslaught has been meager. The C.D.C., the nation’s leading public health agency, has a website with accurate information, but no loud public voice. The United States Surgeon General’s office has been mum. So has the White House — and not just under the current administration. That leaves just a handful of academics who get bombarded with vitriol, including outright threats, every time they try to counter pseudoscience with fact.”

And thus, while human beings have learned to cure an assortment of natural diseases, we still haven’t learned to cure ignorance. In 2019, stupidity is the weapon of choice. And no. It doesn’t lead to bliss. It leads to “A surge in outbreaks of measles, mumps, pertussis and other diseases; an increase in influenza deaths; and dismal rates of HPV vaccination, which doctors say could effectively wipe out cervical cancer if it were better utilized.” Our most significant risk as a nation, as explained by Heidi Larson, is misinformation (and this time around it isn’t the Russians):

The next major outbreak — whether of a highly fatal strain of influenza or something else — will not be due to a lack of preventive technologies. Instead, emotional contagion, digitally enabled, could erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot. The deluge of conflicting information, misinformation and manipulated information on social media should be recognized as a global public-health threat
— Heidi Larson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

People often ask, “Why does the Torah, or God for that matter, have to explain such basic, sensical ideas if we are privy to common sense? This isn’t complex stuff.” But if it were so rudimentary – so easy – why do we continue violating these commandments?! Why is it so hard to obey common, governing laws concerning our own well-being? Because despite our access to information (an entire computer in your pocket!), human beings still make completely irrational, dangerous choices.

Which is why we still need reminding. Constantly! We need reminding of preventative hygienic tasks. Which not only affect us personally, but those around us. We need to be reminded to care for health. Cover our mouths. Wash our clothes. Wash our hands. Shower. Stop the spread of illness. Eradicate elements that, as Maimonides remarks, “Lead to danger.”

As we learn even in the 13th Century by Jewish thinkers: “And [God] endowed the bodies of people and breathed in their nostrils the breath of life, to be a master of knowledge to protect the body from all injury and placed both the soul and body within the heavenly spheres and they, the heavenly spheres, will direct and act on [people]. And after God made people's body bound to the laws of nature, as His Wisdom designed, since people are physical, He commanded them to guide against natural occurrence. Because nature, which is given into people's hands, will act on people if people do not guard against [their] natural forces.” [4]

Yes, there are naturally occurring viruses and defects in health. But it cannot be ingrained in our nature not to act against those who blatantly disregard facts. Because if God had to say it just once, it’s probably worth repeating.

Also remind your children to change their clothing regularly….

[1] Exodus 19:9-11
[2] Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot 19:10:2
[3] Rambam, Hilchot Rotzei'ach 11:4
[4] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 546

Aaron Sataloff