The Waters of the Flood and The Waters of the Mikvah.

Dvar on Parshat Noach 2008

By Kymn Goodman

 

The parsha we read today tells the story of Noah. He lived with his wife on the edge of town, far from a corrupt society, which lived with little respect for the Divine. God became very, very, angry at this society and made plans for its complete obliteration. God chooses Noah, referred to as a righteous man, and his family to be the sole survivors and gives him clear and precise directions of what to do to save his family and pairs of all the animals. It's a very rich parsha, full of imagery and metaphors. It's a story of passion, preparation, God's wrath, trust, and a lot of water. It is about the covenant between God and all people, for all time, never again to wipe out all living flesh. Never again to get so disheartened with humankind as to want to obliterate them all. This covenant is remembered by the rainbow, in all its beauty, dew and awe.

 

I studied this parsha exactly 2 years ago for my Bat Mitzvah. Somewhat regretfully, I have not prepared a dvar since then. On this anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah, I am honouring that very meaningful experience.

 

With that dvar I recounted that there were 20 generations from Adam, the first man, to Abraham, the first of our Forefathers. Noah's generation was 10th, right in the middle. It was that whole generation that was wiped out with the flood, along with everybody else. The Torah writes that Abraham was a descendant of Noah's son Shem. Also, I brought out the connections between the flood, the Tower of Babel, and the rainbow. Of course, I didn't want to offer the same dvar I presented then.

 

In preparation for today, I wasn't clear what else I could say about Parshat Noach, as fascinating as I found it. Then, on the Sunday morning between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, I prepared to do something I thought was completely unrelated. I went to the mikvah. And so did others. We were 9 beautiful, enchanting, openhearted women of Or Shalom. Rabbi Laura was our mikvah lady, leading us in her gentle and caring way. I had been to the mikvah recently to witness and lend support for a friend's conversion, and I immersed myself several times years ago, the last time at a very critical time in my life when I wanted to mark my move from widowhood to single status. I had not been for a long time, and I had forgotten what a very spiritual experience it could be. The day after, I started to examine the parallels between the waters of the flood and the waters of the mikvah. It's those thoughts I would like to share with you today.

 

Noah knew the flood would be coming. Hashem told him. If that wasn't enough, Noah is told how he has been chosen as foreman and chief builder of the biggest project on Earth so far. There was an ark to be built and Noah was in charge of getting it done. If God had brought forth a flash flood, where it comes without warning, there would be no time to prepare. Noah had time. In fact, he took 120 years to finish building the ark. Would there not be times when Noah would have doubt that he could finish this massive structure? This was backbreaking work, using impossible to find lengths of wood, with tools not yet electrified. It's not clear in the Torah if he was totally convinced the flood was coming. Certainly anyone he told was more than skeptical.

 

Noah and his family had to let go of so much. Most of their belongings (they were traveling light), and everyone they had ever known, everything familiar and comfortable. Even, and especially, their freedom. Once in the ark, there were no more walks along the river, or tending to the crops. Every day was exhausting work caring for and feeding the animals.

 

God put all His trust in Noah, that he would finish the ark and when the waters would recede, Noah would reseed, repopulate the world. As we read, Noah does succeed at both. Noah had to trust God that he would indeed be spared from this great flood. Trust that there would be dry land to come back to. Trust there would be enough food for all of them.

 

The Torah tells of 40 days of rain pouring down, surging and strengthening. Water so deep it would take a year before land emerged again. The waters drowned it all, the beautiful and the profane. This was the same God that created all this beauty, the wonders of nature, the trees and gardens, all of it, just one parsha before in Breisheet. So why such a widespread destruction, not only of humans, but of all life, and the entire earth? What about the sanctity of life? Why with water? There were other ways God could have chosen to eradicate all life. This was God, after all. We know of God's bag of tricks, like plagues, instant death near the alter, darkness or disease.  Well, what do we know about water? It surrounds us in our very beginnings in the womb, and comprises up to 75% of our bodies. Water is essential. It can quench the thirst or drown the breath. It covers without discrimination, every size and every age. It permeates every minute opening of the body. It can change its form, to vapour and to ice. It can change the form of its surroundings, as the sea erodes the shore. It can cleanse and refresh. It can be playful or it can be dangerous. As my son Mark points out žIt wrinkles your skin when you take a long bathÓ.

 

Perhaps God chose water because it was so complete in its permeance of everything, and so thorough in wiping out all traces of life. In covering the earth with water, it reconnected the earth to its life source and its womb, where it could again be conceived and nurtured. A fresh start. A global renewal.

The mikvah is first mentioned in the Torah in Breisheet chapter 1 verse 10, when God creates the third day. It's referred to as U'lmikvay Hamayim, the living waters. The mikvah as a ritual of immersion is a covenant with God mentioned many times in Exodus Vayikra, like when God tells Moses to instruct the people to immerse before coming to Mt Sinai. It is a ritual of transition from impure to pure, in ancient words. Not exactly the kind of language that would entice us today to go, which is why I think so many have shunned the ritual. I see the similarities in language to Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness and are renewed. The slate is wiped clean. Our sins are washed away.

 

The mikvah is filled with more than just water. It is filled with history and connection and kavanah. Traditionally, the mikvah was used primarily for women, to mark the end of their menstruation and renewed sexual relations with their husbands. Today, the mikvah is used to honour men and women in times of transition or to mark a milestone, such as a change of status or just before the wedding. Many go to the mikvah in preparation for Shabbat or the High Holy Days. Some go in after recovery from an illness, at the end of menopause, or having left an abusive relationship. There is the preparation of the body and the mind. It's not something that one does spontaneously, though you can decide to go at the last minute, as some do, or be planning it for weeks, as others have done. When one comes to the mikvah, the body should be in as natural a state as possible.

 

Reb Laura asked us to consider 3 questions in our preparation to immerse: 1) What do you want to let go of? 2) What do you want to bring into your life 3) What is your personal prayer? Really good questions, at any time of the year.

 

The mikvah waters are also to wipe out. They can rinse away our negative thoughts. It is a cleansing. When one clears out the negative, there is room for the positive. There is room for beauty, for love, for God, and for all things good. It is a rebirth.

 

Just as the story is influenced by the relationship between God and Noah, the trust in the mikvah lady can change the experience substantially. We are naked and vulnerable. She is our guide. We are nervous. She is discreet. We are unknowing of the impact the mikvah will have. She keeps watch out for us. We are emotional. She offers blessings and intention.

 

I trust the mikvah. I trust the waters will be warm. I trust the stairs will end and the water won't be over my head. I trust I will be suspended without touching the bottom or sides. I trust my breath will return when I come up and breathe.

 

The midrash says that we have engaged in this ritual continuously since Torah times. There were many mikvot uncovered in Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. There were mikvot in the ghettos and in times of oppression. Even on Massada.

 

The Mikvah strengthened my Jewish heart and it strengthened my covenant with God. It is a very personal experience, for I am alone in the water. Just me and my still, small voice. Yet, the mikvah connects me to every Jewish person who has ever had one, or ever will. I liken it to lighting the Shabbos candles. Every time I light candles Friday night, I am connected to all those who lit before me, in both joyous and oppressive conditions, and it connects me to every person yet to light them. When I light the candles, I am connecting with my grandmother Rose and her mother and grandmother, and on and on. I light the candles with my children and my granddaughter. I am the connector between the generations. That's how I felt going into the mikvah, like the thousands of men and women before me, I felt connected to them all.

 

The three-letter root of the word mikvah (kuf, vav, heh) means hope. In Hebrew, the letter mem preceding a root word indicates place. A mikvah can be understood to be the place where hope is. We derive hope from submerging our entire beings in the living waters, the life force of God surrounding and filling us. When we can truly feel this complete presence of the Divine in our lives, then we can be full of hope and optimism. The rainbow, which needs water to appear, is God's sign for us that there is reason to hope.

 

As with every ritual, there is you before and you after. When I awoke the morning after the mikvah, I felt rejuvenated. I had more resolve to accomplish my purpose, with renewed faith that God would be there when I called, and I would be there, too. Also, I had a renewed sense of community, with the women I sang with and cried with, and shared our personal stories with. We take that bond, that little bit of shared history, with us. I look forward to emerging again as a tool to help me go deeper inside. I look forward to sharing the experience with other members this community. I encourage those who have not yet embraced this ritual, to take a closer look at what it can mean in your life.

 

The flood was a cleansing of all the earth. A mikvah to rededicate and re-energize. Would Noah and his family feel renewed after the flood, full of hope? After the waters receded, the dove of peace brought back a branch to signify that land was visible once again, and would be fruitful and livable. When Noah and his family finally left the ark, built houses for themselves and barns for the animals, I wonder:  did Noah build a mikvah too?

 

 

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