From fragility to joy: the message of mikvah

A ritual of restoration

Rabbi Reni image

I first learned about mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, when I was a junior in college studying in Jerusalem.

I wish I could remember the name of the teacher who taught a group of young women, many of us in Israel for the first time. I remember her face and the scarf she wore to cover her hair. I remember her confidence in the life she was living, and her earnest desire to help us explore our own Jewish practice. At the time, I did not harbor any associations with mikvah, positive or negative, just a curiosity for all things Jewish.

She explained the need for mikvah in a beautiful way. She taught us the words tameh and tahor. I don't think she ever used the words "impure" and "pure." These were common translations I learned later. She employed these Hebrew words to describe spiritual states of being. She taught that when a person is tameh, or in a state of tum'ah, this means that the person (temporarily) possesses a more intense awareness of life's fragility. It is not necessarily bad, as the term "impure" implies. It is simply part of life.

Tum'ah is the way you see the world on a day that you attend a funeral. Time slows, your actions are deliberate and purposeful, your perspective shifts, and life comes into focus. There is grief and gratitude, fear and courage, loneliness and connection.

We become tameh if we enter a home or other building where a dead body lies. We become tameh after childbirth because childbirth is terrifying and glorious, and the beginning of life is extremely fragile. Sadly, illness brings a similar awareness as does healing. Our teacher explained that women enter a spiritual state of tum'ah during our period because with it comes the loss of potential life. It would be very difficult to live in a state of such intense awareness all the time.

And so, we immerse in the mikvah. Surrounded by its warm waters, we transition back to a state of tahara, a spiritual state more focused on productivity and joy.

Ever since the coronavirus has drastically changed our lives, it feels like the whole world is in a state of tum'ah , a state of intense awareness of life's value and fragility. It is an awareness that is exhausting in long stretches. Not that this experience is the same for all of us; it is not, but by now, we are aware of how vulnerable we are.

There is grief and gratitude, fear and courage, loneliness and connection. When we move forward, and eventually we will, perhaps we will create a new ritual to help us transition back to a state more focused on productivity and joy. We will need it.

Rabbi Reni Dickman is Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the Senior Educator of JUF.

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