Hands are powerful. Hands are personal.
Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms. And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.
The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. Here is the King James translation:
And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand. (Exodus 14:8)
In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns. When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change. The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors. They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.
See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshalach: High Handed.
In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer. The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.
But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated. Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator. For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).
This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt. Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity. Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.
And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood! Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father. (Genesis 33:22)
In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.” All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive. Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern. An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:
What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.” (Genesis 33:26-27)
What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.
Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime. If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.
In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.