Each year, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, my family and I pack up our tents and sleeping bags and head out to the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret. We camp on the shore and join the thousands of people who come from throughout Israel to swim across this fresh water lake. The Kinneret, which supplies the country with most of its drinking water, is also a popular natural recreational destination.
I have always experienced this national tradition as a prayer of sorts—a prayer of both benediction and supplication. As we transition from the swimming season to the rainy season, we are thankful for the water we have received, and pray for water in the coming year—to not only fill the Kinneret for next year’s swim, but to saturate us so we can survive on this harsh, dry Land.
Right before we left on Friday afternoon, I taught a group of 19-21-year-olds from Chile and Brazil about mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath. I am the rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh, located at Kibbutz Hannaton, which is the only mikveh in Israel run by a woman rabbi, and the only one with a stated policy welcoming all who want to immerse in whatever way they see fit. Since a mikveh, ideally, is a natural body of water like a lake, ocean, or spring, we see no reason why an indoor mikveh should not mirror that experience as much as possible.
Part of my role as rabbi of this mikveh is to guide people, spiritually and technically, through their immersion experiences—if they so desire; if they do not want my help, I hand them the key and let them have their privacy. Another part is mikveh educator. So teaching this group was not an extraordinary occurrence. I taught them about the origins and meanings of mikveh, as well as its history and recent renaissance in the liberal Jewish world. I talked about how people are reconnecting to mikveh as a spiritual practice, reclaiming and reframing mikveh as a ritual of renewal, transformation, transition. and spiritual preparation and cleansing.
I talked about how mikveh immersion is not only traditionally done monthly after a woman menstruates, but at various other points in a Jew’s life: yearly before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, weekly before Shabbat, before getting married, before giving birth, after giving birth, at midnight on Shavuot night, on Hoshannah Rabbah, on Rosh Hodesh, for healing purposes, for inspiration and encouragement, and, of course, when converting to Judaism.
But I also talked about ways people are using mikveh today during other life transitions, such as at menarche and menopause, at graduation, ordination, before starting army service, at the end of a period of mourning, before surgery or upon starting chemotherapy treatments, at bat and bar mitzvah, upon weaning a child; the list can go on and on.
Mikveh immersion was encouraged by Jewish mystics and rabbis throughout the ages as a means to cleanse the soul and bring the practitioner to higher spiritual heights. Mikveh immersion has traditionally been a way to tap into the Divine Spirit that has been present in the “living waters” since before Creation, when those waters covered all of existence as we know it. The biblical Creation narrative tells us that today—since the third day of Creation—those same waters are collected in pools we call seas, or “mikvaot,” as it says in Genesis 1:10: “And G-d called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters [mikveh ha-mayim], Seas; and G-d saw that it was good.“
When I ended my study session with the group, I showed them where the key is hidden and invited them to come back to immerse before Shabbat. I then excused myself and said that I was rushing out to drive to the Sea of Galilee for the annual Kinneret pre-High Holiday swim. To my surprise, one of the participants called out: “You’re going to do mikveh!”.
I was pleased to hear how what I had taught sunk in. He was totally correct. For the Jews who participate in the swim, it is like a collective mikveh immersion before heading into the intensity of the High Holiday season. Much like the Jews in the Temple period must have paraded to the mikveh cisterns surrounding the Temple Mount to purify and prepare themselves for worship.
Yet, interestingly, I myself—a rabbi whose pulpit is a mikveh!—had never framed my pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee at this time each year as a mikveh experience. I wondered: Why not?
Kabbalist and Hassidic sources on the meaning of mikveh immersion on Yom Kippur Eve see the ritual as part of the process of repentance and return. The Ba’al Shem Tov (founder of Hassidic Judaism in the late 18th century), for instance, talks about how one must do more than simply immerse. One must have the appropriate kavanot (holy intentions), and do the work prior to mikveh immersion of deep self-examination with a sincere will to “take on the yoke of Heaven and leave behind one’s sinful ways”.
He likens a human being to an earthenware vessel that cannot be purified by mikveh immersion, but must actually be broken in order to become pure. First one must break one’s heart within oneself before immersing. Then and only then will mikveh immersion before Yom Yippur have any real meaning, he writes.
I think sources like these are the reason I never associated the Kinneret swim with this ancient tradition. I did not experience my annual swim as part of my soul searching process going into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A prayer, yes. But an act of repentance, no. Yet this year, I decided to do the swim with the kavanot of the Baal Shem Tov in mind.
This summer was an especially difficult one for me, as it was for so many others living in this country. The War took its physical and emotional toll. To be able to join other swimmers as usual at this time of year, in the aftermath of this horrific summer, was certainly cause for me to celebrate. Yet the festivity was muted for me this year as I swam. I could not 100% relax into a feeling that the War is behind us.
I fear for the future of this country. This summer, as rockets soared above and reports came in from Gaza of what our military was doing to innocent civilians in an attempt to secure my safety, I felt such a deep despair and sorrow. I grappled with the very tangible manifestation of being simultaneously the oppressed and oppressor. And what weighed even more heavily, was the knowledge that this War was a mere symptom, that it would not be a real solution, which is why it felt even more unbearable.
But what rubbed salt in my open wounds was the blatant racism and hatred unleashed by this summer’s events. It seemed to me that those (on both “sides”) who were not sad and despondent were angry and mean, patting their own backs as righteous protectors of justice and vilifying those on the “other side” as evil, less than human. Some people even acted on these feelings, with hate crimes I cannot even bring myself to describe here, and ugly, harmful words that can never be erased.
When I swam this year, I asked myself if the majority of Israeli Jews (and our supporters abroad) have over the years closed our eyes to the pain of others in order to prevent or alleviate our own pain. Have we refused to fully see others because it would mean having to fully see ourselves? Has our own fear closed us to more creative (although admittedly more risky) solutions that may compromise our sense of security but not our sense of morality? Of course there are two sides to this coin. The failure to see the “other’s” pain and suffering goes both ways. But I can only do penance for myself and those who act in my name.
The Shem Mi’Shmuel (the early 20th century Rebbe of Sochatchov) describes mikveh immersion before Yom Kippur as a death and rebirth of sorts. When we totally immerse ourselves in the waters of Creation, he writes, we lose ourselves as well. Human beings cannot survive under water for very long. Therefore, mikveh immersion is akin to dying. In order to experience rebirth, we need to die first. We need to completely let go and allow ourselves to go to our most deep place of vulnerability. As a country, I think this summer we came very close to that place. I only pray it brings the kind of rebirth that is really the only hope for our future.
The word “mikveh” means a gathering of water. But it is also from the same Hebrew root as the word for hope in Hebrew—k.v.h. So my prayer for this New Year is that we as a country (and I include all of its citizens) find the inner strength to open ourselves to vulnerability in order to find healing, to break ourselves in order to be fixed, to do the kind of collective inner work that needs to be done in order for there to be any hope for this place.
Thankfully, I can already see that work beginning here in Israel, with post-War conferences and gatherings dedicated to fighting racism and hate and fostering understanding and friendship. I myself have already been to a few just this past month. The first was a conference sponsored by a variety of organizations to start a process of implementing real programs with that stated goal. The second was an interfaith evening of singing and chanting about love and peace. And just last night, I attended a moving interfaith event to usher in Yom Kippur and Id-el-Adcha, the Muslim “Festival of the Sacrifice,” which fall on the same day this year.
The only time I felt any glimmer of hope this summer was when I was among people of a variety of faiths and cultures who all believe that might is not right, that every human being was created in the Image of God, and that we can find a way to live together in peace on this Land. If anything good could come out of the War, it will be that it brought us to such a low that we can only rise higher. Like the sound of the shofar, it was a wake up call, I hope, pushing us all to go deeper inside ourselves in order to grow.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh, on kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, where she lives with her husband and seven children. She is also a writer and activist. Her most recent book, “Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening” (Ben Yehudah Press), came out this summer and is available on Amazon.