I recently went to the mikvah to help someone mark the end of her cancer treatment. It was her first time at a mikvah and I hadn’t been in a while. I had forgotten how powerful it is to be in all-female Jewish liminal space – space that holds transitions.
In a split second, it all came flooding back to me. I remembered the power of the water. Water. Mayyim. Living waters. Mayyim chayyim.
As I have mentioned before, I work in a hospital. Not surprisingly, hand washing is a crucial part of my job as a chaplain. Before I see a patient and after I see a patient, I must wash my hands in the prescribed way for the prescribed amount of time. The goal: to rid myself of germs or bacteria that may be lying latent on my hands, waiting to infect me or another patient that I might see later.
When someone goes to the mikvah, she goes to purify herself. The goal: to transition between one state of being and another; to connect with purity.
Some of the most traditional uses for the mikvah are for niddah, when a woman immerses monthly after menstruation and for gerut, conversion. The context of this visit was different but the overarching idea is the same: when you go to the mikvah, you immerse in the water three times and in that process, let go of the past in order to embrace and look forward to the future. Like the way in which we mark the end of Shabbat with havdalah, you can’t just let that liminal moment go by without acknowledging it.
When I wash my hands at the hospital, I am using the soap and water to eliminate certain things that might be on my hands. That concept may resonates with the mikvah too – a woman might be using the water to wash away the painful memories of treatment. But that seems to be less significant that what you are hoping to receive from the water. Again, to go back to the hospital hand washing, the water is simply a vehicle for washing things away. It doesn’t add anything. At the mikvah, the water has its own powers. The waters are living. They are holy.
The waters of the mikvah must have a certain amount of water that is not drawn by human hands, which is most often naturally-collected rainwater. That naturally-collected water is the definition of the mayyim chayyim, the living waters. Water comes from the sky as rain. In doing so, it transitioned from one state to another. Had that rainwater landed on the nearby dirt instead of the mikvah’s collection pool, it would indeed have been instrumental in giving life to a plant of some sort. We, too, are like the plants. We need that water for life – not just physical life, but in this case, spiritual life. When the rabbi or the mikvah guide instructs a woman to remove all her jewelry, her nail polish, and even comb her hair to catch any loose strands, she does so in order ensure that every part of the mikvah-goer’s body comes into contact with the water. The water will touch her and give her new life as she immerses in it. It is really like a rebirth; an incredibly raw moment to stand before God.
It is intimate and personal and beautiful.
One more note – the word ‘mikvah‘ itself comes from the shoresh,root, ק-ו-ה and means to collect (water). However, that shoresh has another meaning as well. ק-ו-ה also means to hope. Tikvah.
I see the waters of the mikvah as waters of hope. I know that the woman who I accompanied was hoping for long term healing. If you might to the mikvah for niddah, you might infuse that experience with hopes for the month ahead. If you are converting, you are absorbing the hope for your new Jewish life from the waters that surround you. The mikvah allows us to physically feel ourselves immersed in hope.
And especially in this week following the tragedies in Boston and Texas, we all need some hope.
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.