It is the morning of my conversion. In a matter of hours, I will immerse myself in the ritual bath — the mikveh. My whole body will be immersed in its waters, after which I will bring my head out of the water and recite a blessing. I will do this twice more, and upon emerging the third time, the gentile will become a Jew.
I wake early. Like a sleepwalker, I stumble to the bathroom to wash my hands before I make coffee. This time, however- for the first time in years, I will wash my hands with no blessing uttered. The blessing recited upon waking each morning, which thanks God for restoring one’s soul, is today reserved for after my immersion in the mikveh. This prayer, which is known as Asher Yatzar, in short acknowledges God’s wondrous acts, without which it would be impossible to live and to stand before the Almighty. The prayer ends by thanking God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
Before showering, I trim my fingernails and wash my body thoroughly with soap and hot water. I get dressed, though this morning I will not put on my tzitzit –– the four cornered garment worn underneath one’s shirt, the garment’s tassels symbolizing God’s 613 commandments. This morning, I will put on my tzitzit only after the mikveh. I arrive at the mikveh at 10 past eight in the morning having been denied my usual morning routine — no sanctification over the washing of hands, no tzitzit and no morning prayers. These mitzvoth –– these commandments, have been postponed until after mikveh. It will be then that for the first time in my life, I will perform them as a Jewish man. Everything up until now has been mere practice.
Some initial things are first taken care of — I am walked through the process while my mother is told where to wait. Lastly, I am granted access into the mikveh room for a brief viewing, the very mikveh that I will soon be immersed in.
First, a drop of blood must be drawn, a minor ceremony equivalent to a brit– a ritual circumcision. In the case of male converts who were in fact circumcised at birth, this ceremony recognizes that this time, the act of circumcision is being performed for God. It will symbolize the eternal covenant God made with Abraham, whose name I will soon bear. Blood is drawn using a single sterilized needle. I don’t wish to look but I am too afraid to look away, the suspense of not knowing when to flinch is too unsettling. Within a matter of seconds, the procedure is over and the needle is disposed of. Those present in the room look to see that the amount of blood drawn meets the requirements for brit. I get the ‘okay’.
I am escorted into what looks like a hotel bathroom. I am left alone to undress, after which I shower once more. With my nails already trimmed, I scrub them thoroughly and then remove the rings from my fingers. I can’t help but contemplate the peculiar resemblances these rituals share with the preparation of one’s body for burial. The men and women of the Chevra Kadisha– the burial society, dress the deceased in the tachrichim, the shrouds. Before they are dressed, their nails are trimmed, their hair combed, and their body is then cleansed with tap water followed by rainwater. The vat used to rest and cleanse the body is not entirely dissimilar to the mikveh I will momentarily step into. The guardian of the deceased’s body utters the words Tahara, Tahara, Tahara.
Pure. Pure. Pure.
With my hair and body washed, my rings removed and my nails trimmed, I now embark on entering the mikveh, a mikveh strikingly similar to the body of water I will be purified in before my burial. Before entering the waters of rebirth, I find myself acutely aware of the inextricable connection between life and death, of what it means to stand naked and overt before the God of Life…
Pure. Pure. Pure.
After stepping out of the shower and drying myself, I loosely wrap a bathrobe around my body and call in the judges.
Nervously and a little uncomfortably, I drop the robe and edge towards the mikveh. Now knee deep, the judges instruct me to lower my entire body into the water- I am told not to hold onto the sides of the mikveh and to ensure every strand of hair is covered. I go down, and as I bring my head up the first time, I recite the blessing that concludes by thanking God Who has sanctified us with His mitzvoth and commanded us concerning immersion, to which those present respond in unison, Amen.
I repeat this process once more. Upon emerging the second time round, I am told one final time that should I be experiencing a change of heart, this is my last opportunity to say so. I tell them I am ready. For the last time, I lower my head into the Mayim Chaim– the Living Waters, knowing that upon bringing my head out of the water, I will be both renewed and anew.
Rachamim, the Hebrew word that translates to English as ‘mercy’, emanates from another Hebrew word- rechem, meaning ‘womb’. The Living Waters of birth and rebirth are indelibly linked to God’s inexhaustible mercy, which like a mother’s womb, envelops us and sustains us through life and into death. The words of Kohelet– of Ecclesiastes, ring true: Just as you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so too you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (Ecc. 11:15)
Like a newborn emerging from the womb, the convert is born again. I clothe myself and enter the room where those present have been waiting. My mother and I embrace. There are some tears; she tells me I have an aura, a distinctive but intangible radiance about me, that on my face she can detect a true calm and sense of self. As if, I think.
For the first time, the Jew washes his hands as if he has just awoken. A blessing is recited aloud for Yitzchak Yedidya ben Avraham v’Sara– God’s beloved Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, the newest member of God’s covenantal people. This is the name I will carry with me through life. It is the name that will accompany the epitaph on my gravestone. The Hebrew word for ‘name’ is shem, which has the same numerical value as the word sefer, which translates to English as ‘book.’ Maybe this is because the name we are each given at birth is in some way representative of the narrative of our lives. Perhaps Andre Schwartz-Bart was right in suggesting that the only way to memorialize a person after they are gone is by saying their name over and over, seeing in the repetition of the person’s name the choreography of their life. If this is true, I feel I have chosen my name well. I pray that it will be both a good name and a good book.
With the morning slipping away, I am eager to fulfill the mitzvah of morning prayers before the opportunity to do so passes. I don my Tefillin and Tallit– the phylacteries and prayer shawl, and begin by saying:
God, the soul you placed within me is pure.
You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me
You safeguard it within me and eventually You will take it from me
and restore it to me in time to come.
But for as long as that soul is within me,
I thank You, my God, and God of my forefathers
Master of all works, Lord of all souls.
The morning blessings and their accompanying psalms are recited in preparation for the Shema. As I conclude the formal blessings, which end by thanking God for choosing His people Israel with love, I recite the Shema– the central declaration of Jewish faith. That same declaration of faith recited daily throughout the ages, embodying centuries of exile and longing. That declaration of faith uttered by the millions of men, women and children as they were marched to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. That declaration of faith that echoed through the streets of the Old City at the time of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.
L’Olam va’ed. Forever and ever.
In my mind’s eye, I see a boy of sixteen, invoking the very same words I now invoke, doing so in a hushed tone and in a language he had barely mastered. I recognize that boy, asking for all there was to know in a tongue so foreign from his own. I don’t pretend to know what came over him or what dawned on him. I don’t pretend to know what suddenly made sense to him or what, in some mysterious sense, became illuminated. But I know that these are the mysteries of life, and I know that the more mysterious something is, the holier it is. I choose to embrace that mystery, knowing full well that indeed it is holy, and as such I give my word that all the days of my life will be dedicated to trying to know and understand.
I think about how today, This World and the World to Come are closely linked. The recitation of Shema rings true, just as it did to the sixteen-year-old boy. The text implies something eternal, it holds the possibility of something eternal- the past and the future, my life and my death. I think about the Shema, which I will invoke every day for the length of my days- just as I am saying it now. Should I be lucid at the time of my passing, it is the prayer I will be asked to recite on my deathbed. When the day comes that the Chevra Kadisha must tend to my body in preparation for my burial, they will form on my body the letter shin, the first letter of Shema. Using a long strap, it will be brought behind my back and will then come together at the front of my body. After saying aloud Alef, bet, gimmel, the three-pronged Hebrew letter will be formed near my stomach, like an umbilical chord connecting me to the World to Come.
I think about these peculiar resemblances of death because I often think about life, and life and death are, as we know, intricately connected. I think about death upon waking each morning, for which I recite the traditional prayer that begins with the words Modeh ani lefanecha, offering thanks to God for having made it through the night unscathed.
But I know that the World to Come exists in every day here on earth. That is why the Talmud tells us that better is just one day on this earth than all eternity in the world to come. We are granted a taste of the World to Come every week, when for one whole day, we pretend that the world is complete, finished, that it (and I) need nothing more to be complete. We are granted a taste of the World to Come when we translate essences into acts- the loftiest of ideals and aspirations translated into living, breathing mitzvoth and halakhot, which teach us to sanctify not life after death, but rather life here on earth, our mitzvoth making space for God in the human realm, imbuing every mundane act with a spark of the Divine. That is perhaps what God meant when He instructed Moshe, our great prophet, Uvacharta v’chayim, to choose life.
Just as the letter shin will be formed on my body shortly before burial, so too I form the letter shin on my arm- L’Olam va’ed. Forever and ever.
Place these words of mine upon your heart and upon your soul. Bind them for a sign upon your arm and let them be Tefillin between your eyes…
Just as it will be as an umbilical chord connecting me to the Next World, so too it will in life itself be a connecter between the Divine and me- eternity and mortality, infinity and finitude, life and death. Leaving the mikveh’s Mayim Chaim, like a child emerging from the womb, I know with unshakeable faith all these things to be true.
I think about the day when those mourning my death will hover over my grave. Just as those present will shovel mounds of dirt onto my body and recite together, Yitgadal v’Yitkadash Shemei Rabah, so too I will invoke those words through life- Exalted be the Living God and Praised, and just as Amen is the answer in death, so too Amen will be the answer in life.
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
Ve’al kol Yisrael
May He who makes peace in High Places
Make peace in all of Israel
And let us say: Amen.