Today marks the yahrtzeit of the holy Rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. May his great love for Torah and the Jewish People come before the Almighty to open the fountains of Divine mercy, washing us from our sins and returning us to a life of Torah in our Land.
The Baal Shem Tov revealed to his students that it was due to his mikvah immersions that he attained his transcendental levels of holiness. And even though it is also said that he attained his exalted stature due to his fervent praying, both explanations are true, for it is precisely the purification of the mikvah that brought an awesome holiness to his prayers.
Since it is the month of Elul when we are engaging in tshuva and spiritual purification, it is a fitting time to remember the powerful purifying powers of a mikvah. In doing so, we will draw from the fountains of insights found in the wonderful book, “Waters of Eden,” written by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, may his memory be for a blessing.
Conveyed in the word mikvah is the work mikaveh, meaning hope and the belief in a better future.
Conversion to Judaism requires immersion in a mikvah, highlighting the power of the waters of the mikvah to bring about transformation and change.
In Jewish law, a mikvah is more important than a synagogue. It is the first thing that a Jewish community must establish, even before a synagogue is built.
A Jewish bride must immerse in a mikvah before her wedding.
At the end of a woman’s monthly menstruation, she must immerse in a mikvah before she is permitted to have marital relations with her husband.
Both men and women converts to Judaism must immerse in a mikvah before their conversion is valid.
The pious immerse before the Sabbath and Jewish holidays to reach a higher level of holiness.
It is proper for a man to immerse in a mikvah to cleanse himself of the spiritual impurity caused by sexual transgressions.
In the days of the Jerusalem Temple, immersion in a mikvah was a necessary part of the Temple services, and still today, before a Jew can ascend to the permitted areas on the Temple Mount, he must immerse in a mikvah.
The power of the mikvah comes from G-d. It is His decree that mikvah is the path to spiritual purity. While human intellect cannot fathom all of its esoteric workings, our Sages have unveiled some of its many mysteries:
The purpose of mikvah is not physical cleansing, but rather spiritual purification and change. Mikvah is the gateway to spiritual elevation and attachment to G-d.
When the High Priest immersed himself on Yom Kippur before entering the Holy of Holies, it was not to cleanse himself of spiritual impurity, for he was already pure. Rather it came to elevate him to the exalted spiritual stature needed when approaching the transcendental holiness of the day.
The mikvah then, is not only a means of purification from impurity, transgression, and spiritual pollution, it is also the pathway to elevation, transformation, hope, and rebirth.
This can be readily seen in conversion. Here, the issue is not uncleanliness or impurity, but rather a change in status, from a non-Jew to a Jew.
Immersion is a process of rebirth. A person merges from a mikvah like a newborn child. In this light, the mikvah symbolizes the womb. When a person enters the mikvah, he or she is re-entering the womb. Emerging from the mystical waters of the mikvah, the person is as if born anew. In this light, he achieves a completely new status.
In the story of Creation, the world was in an original state of water. The word used to convey the gathering of the waters into seas is mikvah. Thus, the water of the mikvah represents the womb of Creation. When a person immerses in a mikvah, he is returning to a pure, original state of Creation. He is returning to his source. In a spiritual sense, he is returning to G-d. Emerging from the waters of the mikvah, from this metaphorical womb of Creation, he spiritually purged and reborn.
This phenomenon of rebirth is the reason why mikvah is an essential part of the process of repentance. By abandoning transgression and his errant ways, the penitent is born anew. In returning to the waters of Torah, he is returning to his true identity as a Jew.
WATERS OF EDEN
In the Biblical account of Creation, it is written that “a river went out from Eden to water the garden.” These Divine waters are the waters of the mikvah. In the language of the Kabbalah, this river is identified with the sefirah of Yesod, the channel that brings Divine blessing into the world.
The Zohar emphasizes that sexual sins block the flow of this river, cutting off a person from the blessings of G-d. Kabbalists stress that the majority of man’s tribulations, hardships, and illnesses stem precisely from sexual sin, which pollutes the river and clogs up the flow of blessing from Eden.
The Talmud teaches that all of the water in the world has its origins in the river that emerged from Eden. In submerging himself in the waters of the mikvah, the penitent reunites with this channel of blessing, reactivating its flow and rectifying the damage which he has caused himself and upper spiritual worlds. Thus mikvah is man’s way of reuniting with the pristine waters of Creation, to re-establishing a link to man’s perfected state. It is his pathway back to the Garden of Eden, and to spiritual and physical healing.
This explains why the mikvah must be linked to natural water. Even though man has been expelled from the Garden of Eden, a link remains. The waters of the mikvah.
Readers interested in learning more about the subject can find essays on the Laws of Mikvah, and Kabbalistic Understandings of Mikvah, on the reactivated JewishSexuality.com website.