Bringing God into the Pain of Divorce: Mikvah as Ritual of Renewal

It was a beautiful day for a ferry ride on the Long Island Sound. The sun was shining. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air was crisp and cold. The sunlight glistened and bounced off the water in golden hues. The gentle calm of the water was soothing to the soul.

Cindy, one of my congregants, and I were taking the ferry so I could bring her to the mikvah.  She had approached me looking for a spiritual way to acknowledge her recent divorce. After some reflection, I suggested immersion in the mikvah. (The mikvah is a ritual bath. For more information about mikvah, click here: Mayyim Hayyim)

Our first experience in life is surrounded by the nurturing waters of our mother’s womb. Those waters envelop us, nourish us, sustain us before we enter this world pure and innocent.

Throughout Jewish tradition, water has always been viewed as a life-giving force, as a source of renewal and purification. In Biblical times, water was used to welcome guests who traveled from afar into one’s home (the tradition was to have the host wash the dust of the road off the guests’ feet). Water was used to refresh and renew.

Rituals can be transformative. They enable us to separate from what existed before, mark a boundary and help make an emotional, inner transformation to a changed status.

Think of the importance of a wedding ritual, or a funeral, or a baby’s brit milah.

As Cindy and I sat on the ferry crossing the Long Island Sound to go to the mikvah, I realized that crossing the water symbolized the emotional journey Cindy was taking: she was leaving her emotional baggage from her marriage on the shores behind her. She was crossing to a new frontier, full of hope and potential.

When we arrived at the mikvah, Cindy went into the luxurious changing room to get herself ready and I prepared the mikvah room:

The mikvah prepared for ceremony of transition following a divorce. Photo by Sharon Sobel.
The mikvah prepared for ceremony of transition following a divorce. Photo by Sharon Sobel.

Unbeknown to Cindy, I created a havdalah ceremony, a ceremony of distinction, of separation, to begin the experience, prior to her stepping into the “living waters.”

When Cindy came out in her robe, I softly sang:

Ozi, v’zimrat Yah, va’yi li, li-y’shua-Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah

My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation (Psalm 118:14, Exodus 15:2)

I used the Havdalah symbols: wine, spices and fire to represent the transition that Cindy was marking. I spoke of finding a new-found sense of of strength and purpose, joy and peace. We asked God for a life filled with compassion and understanding.

I wanted Cindy to be able to smell sweetness in life once again, to go forward from this moment on with renewed hope for herself, for her boys and for the bright future that was before her.

And when we completed Havdalah,  Cindy silently entered the mikvah, the waters of transformation, hope and renewal. She emerged with a new-found sense of peace and strength. (The ceremony used for the immersion was by:  Mayyim Hayyim, “After Finalizing a Divorce”)

And when it was all done, we took the ferry back across the Sound, sailing to a new shore of  promise and possibility.

Cindy Morris Shares Her Story:

When I first approached Rabbi Sobel about needing to feel God’s blessing for my divorce, I realized that sounded a little crazy. Who blesses a divorce? However, I felt like my marriage had been blessed by God, that it was not a waste, and that my life was better for it. But I also wanted to ask God to bless my future without my marriage. I wanted to acknowledge to myself that my life without my ex-husband was one full of possibility and light.

All I could think throughout every mediation was that this was the man who had veiled me, stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with me, and who I called my b’sheret (soul-mate). This was the man who I married with God’s blessings.

But when we signed the documents that ended our marriage, we weren’t even in the same room. It felt dirty and shameful, like we were hiding from one another and from all the people who celebrated our lives with us. The same God who we invited into our wedding, our children’s brises, our holiday celebrations and our daily lives, was very obviously not invited into our divorce proceedings.

When Rabbi Sobel suggested that I go to the mikvah with her for a ceremony of transition, my first thought was about being naked. I had never been to a mikvah before, and it felt overwhelming and intrusive. However, when I thought about it, being naked was important. For years, I had built up walls and shields to protect myself, refusing my right to be vulnerable again, to risk pain. I was refusing to open myself up to the possibilities of my life because I felt a need to protect myself. If I were going to live a full life, I had to find a way to risk that vulnerability again, and that moment in the mikvah, naked, was as vulnerable as I could get.

As I sat in the candlelit room, in front of the water, Rabbi Sobel performed a Havdalah ceremony that didn’t acknowledge going from the holy to the unholy, but instead talked of my transition. It talked of strength, courage, and passion. It spoke of finding my life’s path as a mother, a woman and a person.  And then, I silently entered the pool and dipped three times.

I know that my life is blessed, and that whatever my future holds is mine. Some will be good; some will not. My divorce taught me about me, perhaps more so than my marriage ever did. Stepping from the waters, we sang the Shehechiyanu together, acknowledging that moment was a moment of gratitude and a moment of uniqueness.

And then I was in the changing room, so aptly named. I slipped on my skirt and blouse. I brushed my hair. I put on my shoes, and I went out to the world again.

About the Author
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the Rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, Long Island. Her career has extended from leading congregations to leading national organizations. She is passionate about Israel, social justice and enabling others to use Jewish living as a lens to living life with meaning and purpose. Rabbi Sobel is a fitness and food enthusiast. She views food as a catalyst for creating community and welcoming. (She is a secret “Iron-Chef Wanna-be”). She truly sees her table as a “mikdash m’at – a miniature alter”, a place where the holy and the ordinary come together. The daughter of a Reform rabbi (Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, z”l, from Glens Falls, NY), Rabbi Sobel was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, in May, 1989. She received her undergraduate degree in Mass Communications from Boston University’s School of Public Communications.
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