Celebration: Beating our Broken Drum

When our mitzvah observance becomes more about perfection than acceptance, we must wake up and hear Miriam’s emphatic cry to our people as they left Egypt.
Ancient Mikvah in Migdal, Israel (Photo Credit: Magdala Archeological Park)
Ancient Mikvah in Migdal, Israel (Photo Credit: Magdala Archeological Park)

“Bringing the women down” is a funny expression ladies use at the Mikvah. I’ve been working at the Mikvah, in both the cleaning and bringing-the-women-down capacity, for three years now in the Five Towns, Queens, and Lakewood. Yet, each time I am told to bring the robed lady down, I am amused. Where I was first trained as an attendant, I was always instructed to “dip the woman,” a more palatable use of language in my mind at least; although on second thought, it is also entertaining and sounds like dipping a French fry into ketchup. Technically, after the attendant checks the individual, the former watches her go down the steps into the Mikvah water, so she is, in actuality, bringing her down. To me, though, it’s the most ironic way of speaking, since the whole experience of this particular mitzvah is quite the opposite: It is probably, if done properly and healthfully, the most uplifting, transformative two-minute ritual snippet we go through as Jewish women—as if I want my supervisor to tell me, “Don’t bring the women down, Este. Don’t even dip them. Bring them up!”

In cleaning rooms, manning the desk, and dipping the women, I’ve observed and learned so much about our common humanity, about our own triumphs and insecurities. I never knew spraying Clorox several times over would bring me such eternal wisdom. The women whom I’ve had the privilege to meet come from the most varied religious backgrounds, from blue-blood Satmar, Yeshivish and modern Orthodox individuals, to culturally rich Persians and extremely devoted, non-Shomer Shabbat women. And yet, what brings us together is not only the mitzvah of Mikvah itself but the common humanity it evokes. That is, for many of us, in performing our Niddah observance, we approach some of our deepest challenges: whether it’s double-checking and doubting through anxiety and OCD; cajoling ourselves to stick our toes in the water with hydrophobia and special skin or medical conditions; or getting past having to disrobe in front of strangers with trauma, body image fears, and plain just feeling uncomfortable.

It’s no wonder why our dedication as women is so idolized in the Torah. Regarding Pesach, the Gemara writes that the women of Egypt were the ones who brought us out, and it will be the Jewish women of the future who will bring our Final Redemption. In beautifying themselves, the women of slavery polished their mirrors every night to look back at a gleaming reflection in preparing for their husbands. Additionally, they were the ones who persisted in searching for hot food in the fields to bring to their laboring men for sustenance. They also cleaned their husbands’ wounds and perpetuated their families faithfully during such a difficult, inhumane time of history. In these various ways, the nashim tzidkaniyot of Egypt were invincible. And the Torah not only recognizes this innate female devotion; the Torah celebrates it: The mirrors which those righteous women gazed into after every day of sweat, aches, and a never-ending harsh reality were the very materials fashioned into the holy sinks where the Kohanim, their male counterparts, washed their hands and became pure. In such a subtle yet distinct way, in the tzanuah yet powerful way that we as Jewish women work, these women held the key to the men’s holiness in Egypt all the way until the Nation of Israel received the Mishkan. Their steadfast belief in the positivity of the future, coupled with their perseverance, led the Jewish people into one of the greatest periods of our history.

And there’s no difference today. Our hope and devotion to Jewish life, especially the mitzvah of Mikvah, is at most times infallible: the random frigid beach nights, Covid’s extensive craziness (for lack of a better description), and the rush to submerge despite flying rockets and daily, fear-filled scrambles to the miklat. Aren’t we just so unstoppable?

Even so, with all of our greatness as women, so many of us still struggle. The yetzer hora of self-doubt still manages to creep in, especially after we park our cars at the Mikvah and head on in. That is, the feeling of I’m just not good enough is so pervasive: the urge to scrub ourselves until our skin is raw, the internal shudder we get as we hand the Mikvah lady our robe, or the need to breathe deeply in order to ground ourselves before entering the waters. We are such strong women in so many ways, yet when we unearth our vulnerable selves in one of the most sensitive mitzvot we can keep, sometimes we feel the most unwhole and broken.

As I’ve seen over a short period of time, and as I was taught in training as an attendant, there is such a great need for sensitivity surrounding the Mikvah, since this experience, although bringing much anticipation and excitement into our lives, triggers so many of our insecurities and awakens our otherwise sleeping demons. Simply put, there is so much that can complicate an individual and it is normal but sometimes very difficult. That is, when a woman goes to the Mikvah, she must face whatever her challenge may be, head-on without an alternative. (It’s not like we can just run through the sprinkler in a bathing suit back and forth three times while the Mikvah lady claps her hands and shouts excitedly “Kosher!”) Every month, the Jewish woman is compelled to confront her darkest fears to complete her task and win the golden prize.

Relating to the idea of perseverance at the Mikvah: One of the heroines of the Pesach story is Miriam, who encouraged women to seek out their husbands, to beautify themselves, and to raise the men’s morale. She was the mind behind preparing matzot in advance for their long trek out of Egypt, because even though the men couldn’t see it, their wives knew they had to prepare for the good that G-d was preparing for all of them. In this way, Miriam strengthened the women to believe in the hope and future of the Jewish nation. Just like with the inedible water that with HaShem’s help, Moshe miraculously turned tasty, Miriam took the oppressive state, the sourness of the Jewish condition at the time, and sought to make it sweet, despite the inability of many to see how something so distasteful and terrible could shape up into such a wonderful, awe-filled thing. For this reason, she was named Miriam, or as the Scripture says, “mar yam,” bitter waters. In her life, she would prove to know how to take the most difficult situation and, with much determination and vision, turn it into something magnificent.

After HaShem split the Sea and the Jews went through, Miriam took her תופים ומחולות, her drums and tambourines, along with the Women of Israel and they sang and danced, in celebration of the moment they were all anticipating, for the longest of times. Interestingly, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains the root of the Hebrew drum as relating to the root “broken” (תפף), which embodies the way this musical instrument is used, in short taps and fragmented beats. He continues to the word מחולות, translating it as “dancing in circles,” or as other commentaries expound upon as “tambourines.” Either way, we translate the word, the מחולות are a symbol of one unified whole, continuous and unbroken. It is as if through the Torah narrative, Miriam is waving to us with her jingling instruments, saying, “See here! Embrace (or make whole) your unwholeness.” In other words, take your תופים, your brokenness, and let’s come together in מחולות! In addition, Rav Hirsch associates תופים with the similar wording of “beating your hands on your chest in despair.” According to this interpretation of our Torah’s timeless text, it is as if Miriam, in gathering the women together in a circle and distributing tambourines, is announcing to us, the Jewish women of the future:

No! Do not lose hope. We all struggle in some way. Give all your brokenness a hug; unify your pieces into one and persevere because good will always come. Also, have your instruments at hand because wherever you go, you’ll never know when you will suddenly need to celebrate your victory.

In this light, we must learn to love and be compassionate to ourselves before we can feel that way towards others. In our הא לחמא עניא announcement on Pesach night, we open our arms and doors with kindness to those in need. But before we can be generous to others, though, we need to be generous to ourselves and feed our own hunger. Interestingly, the main food we offer is Our Bread of Affliction. That is, we share, partake, and celebrate in the fodder of struggle and triumph. Our attractive chef special of the evening is our matzot, as we declare to the public, “We may not be perfect and we may even feel so broken inside, but that’s okay. We are kings and queens tonight.” With this, we take those torn and fragmented drums and beat on them not in despair but in celebration—celebrating our flaws, embracing our mistakes and echoing HaShem’s words, “It’s okay”—סלחתי כדבריך: I forgive you, according to your words; that is, I forgive you if you can forgive yourself. In this way, we raise our broken-beaten drums, lift our insufficiencies, and sing HaShem’s praise. We start learning to forgive our imperfections, and the imperfections of our situation, and shout, not in despair but in self-recognition and acceptance, maybe even with a little pride: מחול לך, מחול לך, מחול לך—I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you.

It is the same idea with Mikvah: HaShem wants us to let go of our figurative moles, scars, and love handles, and even those awful stretch marks we all hate. In doing so, we will be able to start immersing ourselves in acceptance as who we are the way we are, with all our fears, insecurities, and inhibitions. Indeed, our true nakedness as a person is unadulterated, makeup-free, and starkly beautiful. If not for women like us, none of us would be here today and if not for us, there would be no future for Klal Yisrael.

In this way of self-care and compassion, we are not bringing ourselves down; indeed, we are raising ourselves up in becoming individuals who are not only holy and pure but unshackled and free.

About the Author
Este Stollman is a Yeshiva English teacher and has a Master of Arts in Jewish History from Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has a small sushi-making party business and lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband and children.
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