Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Choose Life but Prepare for Death: Transitioning from Leviticus to Numbers

This blog post is dedicated to my friend, Hanna Agin Finkbeiner, whose soul passed from the material world during the Passover holiday. Hanna was a member of the Waldorf Kibbutz in the Galilee, Harduf, 15 minutes from Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live and run Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul. The founder of a Palestinian-Jewish narrative-sharing group in which I have been participating for the past few years, Hanna was a woman of peace and reconciliation. When, at age 66, she discovered she had cancer, she did undergo some treatments, but from the start she said that she was not going to battle the cancer, but rather create a relationship with it to try and understand why it had come into her life.

In those last two years before her death, Hanna began a project of intensive inner work. She closed every circle in her life: with her family (for instance, with her mother, who is still alive); with her friends and colleagues; with the political situation in her country (Hanna’s father was killed in the 1967 war); and with herself – to the extent that she radiated inner peace when she passed. A woman who companioned her on her spiritual journey for the past two years described her process as like a bee who collects pollen from all of the flowers around her, in order to create honey. Hanna died in such a powerful and healing way that she helped all of us to understand that death can be beautiful and meaningful – perhaps the biggest gift of life.

The night before Hanna’s funeral, I dreamed that I am trying to get to her funeral but cannot find the way. I see a big slide in front of me and climb to the top. I am about to slide down when I suddenly realize that it leads into a black open space, into endless nothingness. I am startled and shaken by the fact that I almost slid down the slide. When I worked the dream later on, to understand its message to me, Hanna spoke to me and told me that it was not my time yet to slide down the slide, but when it is my time, I will know how. My slide down into the Endless will be as smooth as hers was.

This week in the traditional Torah portion cycle, we ended the book of Leviticus (VaYikra) and began the book of Numbers (BaMidbar). For some people, this transition is a relief, as large parts of the book of Leviticus – such as those about sacrifices, the building of the Tabernacle, the priestly garments, ritual purity – feel irrelevant to today’s readers.

I admit that I felt that way, too, until I started helping people create ritual and ceremony. As a mikveh and ritual guide and consultant – one of the hats I wear – I help others create ceremonies for occasions for which there is no traditional ceremony, or I help them adapt traditional ceremonies to fit their specific spiritual and emotional needs. Interestingly, when I look at some of the Temple rituals, I see that with the loss of our Temple practices, we also lost some powerful rituals that could help us today in times of transition or in dealing with the challenges of being human on this earth.

Thankfully, mikveh is one ritual that we did not lose with the destruction of the Temple. For many generations, the spiritual nature of full body immersion was reserved for men, while for women the ritual was relegated only to married women and only for the purpose of making them sexually permissible to their husbands after uterine bleeding.

Thanks to what I call the “Reclaiming and Reframing Mikveh” movement, this is no longer the case. Mikveh today, at least in the liberal Jewish world, has become a non-gendered practice. And just as the Rabbis in the Talmud adopted the immersion ritual for conversion (as there was no formal conversion in the Biblical period), this movement has turned mikveh into the Jewish ritual for all life’s transitions. And not only for transitions, but also for healing, renewal, and general spiritual reconnection.

For example, a few weeks ago, a woman, Eli, came to the Shmaya mikveh at Hannaton before undergoing a preventative mastectomy. When her mother, during a relapse of ovarian cancer, was diagnosed as a BRCA2 carrier (a genetic mutation that comes with a high risk of breast, ovarian and other types of cancer), she was tested and discovered that she is a carrier as well. Together, we created a unique and personalized immersion ceremony for her, to help her not only get through the ordeal, but actually see it as a blessed opportunity to choose life. I was moved to hear from her that she is now past the surgery and doing well, and that she doesn’t accept her new body; she embraces it. (See the following links on RitualWell to the ceremony we created together and Eli’s blog post about it)

But although mikveh immersion is still alive and well in the Jewish world, the system of tumah and taharah, ritual impurity and purity, has fallen out of practice with the destruction of the Temple. While I can see the benefits of not having to be constantly mindful of one’s purity status, there are also downsides to not having this awareness in our lives. While Rabbinic Judaism as it is practiced today does have elaborate rituals around death and mourning when it happens, we do not have rituals integral to mainstream practice to help us prepare for death.

The way I understand the system of tumah and taharah, that was its function: to help us prepare for the big and final death by having us enact smaller deaths throughout our lives. When someone came in contact with death in some form – the loss of an ovum or sperm, skin peeling from the body, or an actual corpse – there was a ritualized way to mark that, take the time to contemplate and process it, and then return to the flow of the living.

Today, we tend to avoid thinking about death, despite the fact that the only thing we know for certain about our lives is that we will one day die. Other cultures and religions do still have death rituals as an integral part of their practice. For example, Buddhists practice Death Meditation, which is essentially meditating on one’s own death or death in general for regular intervals. This approach believes that meditating on death and its inevitability, even imagining one’s own death, lowers our anxiety around it.

It is quite amazing to me, actually, that Judaism did have its own ritualized way of helping us prepare for death, and it is a shame that we lost it. But I think, actually, that the reclaiming of mikveh can be seen partially as one way we can compensate for that loss. After all, all transitions are frightening on some level, and all are essentially a transition into an unknown, into the mystery. No one knows what the future holds.

By marking various transitions in our life with an embodied water ritual (one that will be done on our corpse after our soul has left it), we are also preparing ourselves for that final life transition into the unknown. And in preparing for death, we can also alleviate some of the suffering created because of anxiety around death.

As Parker Palmer, a writer and activist who comes from the Quaker tradition, writes in his most recent book, On the Brink of Everything: Grave, Gravity and Getting Old:

“What I know for sure is this: we come from mystery and we return to mystery. I know this, too: standing closer to the reality of death awakens my wonder at the many gifts of life.”

Hanna Agin Finkbeiner, may her memory be a blessing.

And as Etty Hillesum, who was murdered in Auschwitz at age 27, wrote in the diary she kept for the two years before her death: “My life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: A Guidebook for Couples, is slated for publication in 2019. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.