The Mikveh: Bringing Purity (Even To Tazria-Metzora Sermons)

This time of year, we read a very infamous Torah portion: Parashat Tazria-Metzora, a double Torah portion, which is widely considered to be the ickiest section of Torah.

Tazria describes, in great detail, the procedure for dealing with the skin disease tzara’at, a scaly red and white rash. Metzorah then segues into a discussion about what to do to purify oneself after certain bodily emissions.

Guys, it’s gross.

So imagine my enthusiasm when I realized that this was the Torah portion about which I was required to speak on my recent visit to a synagogue in Blacksburg, Virginia.

There is one section of this portion I find particularly meaningful, and that is the section about mikveh. A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath, which people use for a variety of reasons. In ancient times, High Priests were required to immerse in a mikveh before performing certain tasks at the Temple; women traditionally immersed after giving birth and at the end of their cycle; converts to Judaism must immerse as the final step in their conversion. Immersion in the mikveh marks a transition from a state of impurity to purity, or, as I prefer to say, “un-readiness to readiness” for interactions with God.

I learned all about the traditional basis for mikveh as well as its modern iterations as a summer intern at Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh and education center in Newton, Massachusetts. In fact, that internship led me to my Education Fellowship position at the ISJL. Let me walk you through the Jewish geography: the ISJL’s President and founder is Macy B. Hart. Macy’s eldest daughter is Leah Hart Tennen. In 2012 Leah, was the Mikveh Center Director at Mayyim Hayyim, where I was a summer intern.

Small Jewish world!

I loved interning at Mayyim Hayyim. First of all, I learned all about the physical structure of the mikveh. A mikveh must be a permanent structure fed by natural rainwater. There are all kinds of complicated systems to make sure this water is both natural and clean. At Mayyim Hayyim there are two mikva’ot, which are connected to outdoor wells which collect rainwater. There are all sorts of complicated rules about how much water, what percentage must be natural, how it can and cannot be cleaned. I loved learning the legal discourse around these details!

I also learned a lot about how people are using this ritual in meaningful ways today. There are many people who immerse in a mikveh for the traditional reasons I mentioned above. There are also many people who are using immersion to mark other transition points. For example, cancer patients at the Newton Wellesley Hospital often visit Mayyim Hayyim to mark the end of a round of chemo or significant success in their treatment. Men and women visit the mikveh before Shabbat or High Holidays. The Mayyim Hayyim blog is full of stories about why people have been motivated to immerse.

Thank goodness for the mikveh. It gave me all of this to talk about in my d’var Torah in Blacksburg, Virginia, and saved me from an awkward exploration of Biblical skin diseases.

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