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Why Does The Mikvah Make Me Pure?

The Meaning Behind the Mikvah Rituals


Beth Lesch

Writer

Why do we go to the mikvah? Yes, we do it because God commanded it — but why did God command such a strange thing?

What, you don’t think the mikvah is strange? You dunk in an 8x6-foot chlorinated swimming-pool-for-one and somehow, that makes you “pure”? Is there some meaning behind that, a mechanism, a reason why that would purify you? Or is the whole ritual just completely arbitrary? Could God just as easily have said: “I want you to purify yourself by immersing in a whirlpool filled with coconut milk” — and then He snaps His fingers and magically, you’re pure?

Where might we look for an answer to that question? Parshat Metzora is filled with laws about the mikvah, but nowhere does it say: “Here is the meaning of the mitzvah. Here’s why it purifies you.”

So if the answer isn’t in the “mikvah section” of the Torah, where else could we look?

Well… how about the very first time that the word “mikvah” appears? Where is that?

Strangely enough: It’s in the story of the creation of the world.

What is a mikvah doing in the creation story?? Could this be describing the very first mikvah in the universe? And what would that even mean?

Men, women: whether you already find mikvah to be a deeply meaningful ritual, or you struggle to connect to it, this video is for you. Watch it and never think about the mikvah the same way again.

Beth also dives deeper in the Mikvah laws in her blog post: Understanding The Laws Of The Mikvah: For Women... And For Men?

Click here to go to "The Keruvim In The Garden" video.

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Transcript

Hi, I’m Beth Lesch. Welcome to Parshat Metzora. This is Aleph Beta.

Parshat Metzora tells us about the laws of immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Let me ask you: why do we go to the mikvah?

I know that we do it because God commanded it, we do it to become spiritually pure… but why did God command such a strange thing? And how does the mikvah help us to become pure?

Is There Meaning Behind the Mikvah Rituals?

What, you don’t think the mikvah is strange? I know that many people find mikvah to be a deeply meaningful ritual — and I’m actually one of them, and if you feel this way, this video is for you, too! — but put that aside for a second and just think about what we’re actually doing.

My mikvah is an 8 foot by 6 foot swimming-pool-for-one located in the basement of my shul. I go in, I dunk, and I emerge, somehow, “pure.” If the mikvah doesn’t conform to seemingly random laws — like if you used a bucket to fill it up with water — then from the perspective of Jewish law, it’s basically meaningless. Maybe that sounds like a perfectly normal religious ritual to us, because we’re used to it, but I gotta tell you, to someone who’s hearing about mikvah for the first time, it doesn’t sound so normal. Prayer — now that’s a normal religious ritual. I can see how prayer would connect me to God. It’s understandable. But dunking in a mikvah?

It could be that mikvah is just a chok, a decree whose meaning is somehow beyond our human reason. Some people say that’s actually part of the magic. We do these crazy things for no other reason than because God asked us to, and that’s what you do for your beloved. And while part of me thinks that explanation is romantic, the other part of me wonders if there could be more going on. Could God just as easily have said: “I want you to purify yourself by immersing in a whirlpool filled with coconut milk”? Is the act of immersing in a mikvah, as we know it, just arbitrary?

How Does the Mikvah Ceremony Purify Us?

Well, does the Torah have anything to say about this? We should be able to find the answer there, right? But not so fast. If you’re looking for “laws” about mikvah, yeah, the Book of Leviticus is full of ‘em —

רָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד-הָעָרֶב

Wash yourself in water, and you’ll be impure until the evening (Leviticus 15:6)

מַעְיָן וּבוֹר מִקְוֵה-מַיִם יִהְיֶה טָהוֹר

A fountain or a cistern, a gathering of water, remains pure (Leviticus 11:36)

— but it never says: Here’s the meaning of the mitzvah. Here’s why it purifies you.

So if the answer that we’re looking for isn’t in Leviticus, it isn’t in the “mikvah section” of the Torah, where else could we look? How about the first time the word “mikvah” is used? Where is that?

The Original Mikvah Water in the Torah

The word “mikvah” almost never appears in the Torah — and it turns out that the the first mention of the word is in the weirdest of places: it’s in the first chapter of the Torah, in the story of the creation of the universe.

What, you don’t remember the part that says: “And God said: ‘Let there be a mikvah,’ and there was a mikvah, and God saw that it was good”? Just kidding. Here’s the verse.

יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמַיִם אֶל-מָקוֹם אֶחָד

[God says:] "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place

וְתֵרָאֶה הַיַּבָּשָׁה

and let the dry land appear,"

וַיְהִי-כֵן

and it was so. (Genesis 1:9)

וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לַיַּבָּשָׁה אֶרֶץ

And God called the dry land: “Earth”

וּלְמִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם קָרָא יַמִּים

And the gathering (the “mikveh”) of water He called: “Seas” (Genesis 1:10)

There’s our word “mikvah” — but it’s not referring to a pool where you purify yourself. It’s referring to this body of water that God made when He was creating the world. What is the word doing here? What’s the connection between a mikvah and the creation of the world? Could this have anything to do with the mitzvah of mikvah, as we know it?

I think that it does — I think that the story of the creation of the world teaches us what a mikvah is and why it matters. Let’s read that story now. We’ll begin at the beginning.

Biblical Connections to the Mikvah Water

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.

In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ

the Earth was unformed and desolate

וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם

and there was darkness over the surface of the deep

וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.

and a spirit of God was hovering over the water. (Genesis 1:2)

Wait a second… before the universe was created, God’s spirit was hovering... over water? That’s a little puzzling, isn’t it?

I mean, imagine the verse had said, “In the beginning of God’s creation, God’s spirit was hovering over the antelope…” You would have said, “Antelope? That’s ridiculous! Antelopes weren’t created until Day 6.”

So what’s going on with this water?

We don’t normally think of it this way, but it sounds like the Torah is saying that water existed before the rest of the world was created. In the beginning, there was God and there was water. God’s world was a water world.

Now keep reading and pay attention to what happens to that water. God says:

יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם

"Let there be a sky in the midst of the water

וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם.

and let it be a separation between water and water." (Genesis 1:6)

וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ

And God made the sky

וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ

and it separated between the water that was below the sky

וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ

and the water that was above the sky

וַיְהִי-כֵן

and it was so. (Genesis 1:7)

Now, God isn’t done with these waters yet. Look at what happens next:

יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמַיִם אֶל-מָקוֹם אֶחָד

"Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place

וְתֵרָאֶה הַיַּבָּשָׁה

and let the dry land appear,"

וַיְהִי-כֵן

and it was so. (Genesis 1:9)

וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לַיַּבָּשָׁה אֶרֶץ

And God called the dry land: “Earth”

וּלְמִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם קָרָא יַמִּים

And the gathering of water He called: “Seas” (Genesis 1:10)

God takes that water, and He splits it into two bodies: the “upper” and “lower” waters. And then He takes those lower waters and gathers them together. Why does God keep rearranging the water?

God is rearranging the water because He’s trying to make space for something else, something besides water. I think we tend to imagine that the universe was just this big empty space, waiting to be filled with stuff — and if that were true, and God wanted to make a world for people, no problem! He’d just say, “Let there be sky! Let there be dry land! Let there be antelopes!” and one by one, each thing would just plop! into the empty space. But the universe wasn’t a big empty space. It was covered with water. You can’t create sky where water exists. You can’t create dry land where water exists. Two different things can’t occupy the same space at the same time! So if you’re God, and you want air, you want dry land, you have to make space for them. You have to move the water out of the way.

This might sound mundane to you, but it’s a big deal because that water — it’s not any old water – it’s the water from God’s world! It’s the water above which God’s own spirit once hovered! Yeah… but He’s making a world for people. People can’t survive in a water world. People need air, dry land. So what does God do? He causes His water to recede. And as those waters recede, every square inch of water is immediately occupied by a square inch of air, of dry land… It’s as if God is saying to us: “This part of the world here: it’s yours now. I’m pulling out.”

And maybe this somehow relates to the kabbalistic discussion of tzimtzum. The kabbalists say that when God was creating the universe, He had to contract Himself, as it were, to make room for not-God. He couldn’t just create us, He had to relinquish space to us.

Well, it seems that that’s the story of the mikvah. God’s world was a water world. But God took that water and made it smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and he did that in order to create a world for us. That contracted body of water: that’s called a mikvah. That’s what you get when God literally contracts His world to make space for ours.

So we’ve got this whole story about the “mikvah” in Genesis, but what does all of this have to do with the mitzvah of immersing in a mikvah? They don’t really seem to have anything in common.

...Or do they?

What Is Mikvah Immersion All About?

Could it be that the mitzvah of immersing in a mikvah is the mitzvah to leave behind man’s world and enter God’s world?

Think about it.

That “mikvah” that we read about in Genesis… it’s not a mythical body of water. It actually exists in our world. Look at the globe. The Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea — they’re all connected, what oceanographers call the Global Ocean, but in the language of the Torah, right there in Genesis, it’s a mikvah. It’s all that’s left of God’s world.

Now, if there’s a little piece of God’s world in our world, you’d think we’d want to go there all the time, right? But that’s not what we do. We go out of our way to avoid that water. We build bridges and dams and boats. We might go to Jones Beach and dip our toes in, but only if there’s a lifeguard present. Our bodies just aren’t built for the oceans. So we stay out of their way. We don’t venture into God’s world. Instead, we stay on dry land – man’s world.

But then the Torah comes along with this astounding mitzvah: seek out a mikvah and plunge yourself into it. What’s a mikvah? Oh, you remember: we read about them in Genesis. They’re the waters from God’s world. The waters above which God’s spirit once hovered. Those waters aren’t a part of human civilization. Seek out those waters and place yourself inside of them. You’ll find God there.

The Purest Kosher Mikvah

Not so fast, you may be thinking. Maybe back in Genesis, “mikvah” referred to the oceans — but today we don’t ritually immerse in the ocean! We go to those swimming pools in our shul basements. God’s spirit certainly never hovered over those waters!

But is that really true? To be kosher, a mikvah needs to be filled with either groundwater or rainwater. Tap water won’t do. Does that remind you of anything? It’s the lower and upper waters from Day 2 of creation! Even in our indoor mikvahs, we’re trying to get as close as we can to that primordial water, the way that it existed when it was in God’s world.

And by the way, when we understand the mikvah as a mitzvah to enter God’s world, a lot of the other bizarre, seemingly random laws suddenly start to make sense. Like the law I mentioned earlier that you can’t use a bucket to fill up a mikvah. Why not? Because the water is supposed to flow naturally into the mikvah. It can’t be brought to the mikvah via direct human intervention. That would be like taking God’s water and turning it into human water. (And if you’re wondering how we manage to fill mikvahs without direct human intervention — that is an excellent question and the short answer is that it requires some very clever engineering).

That all being said, I know that when we think of mikvahs, we think of the swimming pool for one, but the ocean is a kosher mikvah. We tend to prefer indoor mikvahs because they’re safer, more accessible, more private, less salty, but maybe, in some ultimate sense, immersing in the “Global Ocean” is the purest expression of this mitzvah.

What Is the Mikvah Really Used For? The Meaning of Mikvah Laws

I think we can see now that the laws of mikvah are anything but arbitrary. I think now we can even understand why the mikvah makes you pure. It’s not the water that purifies you. There’s a mechanism. When you immerse in a mikvah, you encounter God. And what could be more pure than God?

I’m not the only one who says this. Rabbi Akiva makes a fascinating comment about this verse from the Prophets:

מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה

It’s usually translated as “God is the hope of Israel,” since the root kuf, vav, hey means “to gather” but it can also mean “to hope.” But Rabbi Akiva reads it differently. Mikveh yisrael Hashem – “God is the mikvah of Israel.” He’s saying that God is literally our mikvah. When we immerse in a mikvah, it’s as if we’re immersing, somehow, in God. Water is just the means. Immersing in a whirlpool of coconut milk just wouldn’t cut it.

Connecting to God Through the Rituals of the Mikvah Bath

If I can speak personally, this helps me to make sense of my own experience of going to the mikvah. And let me just say, it can be a complicated experience. I don’t like everything about the mikvah. Sometimes I feel stressed — like it’s one more thing to squeeze into an already overloaded day. Sometimes I feel self-conscious, knowing that there are other women waiting to take their turn and I’d better hustle. And sometimes I feel sad, like when I was trying to conceive and my monthly visits to the mikvah were an unwelcome reminder that I hadn’t. But once the warm waters of the mikvah envelop me, that all melts away. I don’t feel stressed, or self-conscious, or sad. I feel connected to God — and it often takes me by surprise.

I’m a pretty cerebral person; I tend to connect to God through talking or Torah study or talking (did I say talking?)... but the mikvah is silent, sensory, almost dream-like. It really does feel, at least for me, like leaving your world behind. Maybe, even, like entering God’s world...

This idea that God’s world was filled with water: are we really supposed to take that literally? Rabbi Fohrman argues, persuasively I think, that those primordial waters are a metaphor. But for what? I’m not going to tell you! Check out his video, link in the description. He starts out talking about the Mishkan, but he gets to the water stuff in Part 2, and when he does, it’s pretty mind-blowing. Check it out.

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1. Why Does The Mikvah Make Me Pure?