Outside the Mikveh
Wed, 09/08/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
New Bath House, built by JDC. Sochaczew, Poland. 1921–1923. PHOTO: AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE
New Bath House, built by JDC. Sochaczew, Poland. 1921–1923. PHOTO: AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE

I sat waiting for her on a bench on a traffic island situated between the northbound and southbound lanes of Broadway, about a block away from the Upper West Side mikveh. Wearing my Shabbat clothes, with a yarmulke on my head, I felt self-conscious, acutely aware of the questions I would ask if I saw someone like me, openly Orthodox, sitting and watching the traffic at the onset of Shabbat when I should have been in shul davening.

We had taken a taxi to the mikveh, requiring a tricky calculation particular to the Sabbath-observant as we tried to guess how much money we would need. Then, while my wife went to use the mikveh, I found a spot where I could wait for her—not so far that she would have trouble finding me after she was finished, but not so close that any other women using the mikveh that Friday evening would feel uncomfortable if they noticed me sitting there. We walked home together holding hands.

This memory has taken on particular significance for me, perhaps because that Friday night has come to symbolize what is the essence of my mikveh experience: for me, the mikveh is always about waiting. At times, my wife returns from the mikveh with a mysterious positive energy, an energy that I appreciate but that I never quite understand. What am I doing while she bathes in these living waters? Wandering the house. Putting the kids to bed. But what I am really doing is waiting. The time between when she leaves for the mikveh and when she returns is charged with significance and yet somehow lost. It is important largely because it passes.

With this in mind, I began to think more about how I understand the mikveh, and I started with the word itself. While the more familiar etymological base of the word mikveh is kuf vav heh, meaning hope, different sources resonate with different meanings. When Jeremiah, perhaps the loneliest of prophets, asks, “Are there any among the vanities of the nations that can cause rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Art not Thou He, O Lord our God, and do we not wait for Thee?” (14.22), he uses the words nekaveh lach, “wait for you.” And these connotations, of hope and of waiting, are not mutually exclusive. They both suggest something that is delayed; we wait because we hope. At the same time, Jeremiah’s words describe how lonely it is to wait for God to return, infusing the theological with the psychological. We encounter here an aspect of the human desire to encounter God, and in turn an aspect of the religious life: to hope is to be in a spiritual place that precedes fulfillment. To wait, whether for God or for another human being, is to be lonely.

Even more significant than Jeremiah’s use of the word “nikaveh” in Chapter 14 is his use of the word “mikveh” itself in Chapter 17: “Thou hope of Israel, the Lord! All that forsake Thee shall be ashamed; they that depart from Thee shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters” (17.13). Here, God is mikveh yisrael, the hope of Israel, bringing together various layers of imagery, the ritual bath with the root word for hope.

Here, too, there is distance and longing, profound spiritual potential that remains as yet unrealized. And even as we draw near to God, even as we submerge ourselves in our mikveh yisrael, the analogy nags us to admit to ourselves how temporary are these encounters. If it isn’t the mikveh that matters but the relationships to which we return as we emerge from the mikveh, then what does this suggest about our relationship to God? I must leave behind the God who so intimately purifies me.

But God is not only the signified to which the mikveh as signifier refers; God is also the builder of the first mikveh: “And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters [mikveh mayim] called He Seas; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1.10). Even before there were human beings to be purified there was a mikveh to purify; the mikveh was part of God’s original design, that there should exist in this world the temporary encounters with God signified by the mikveh, and the transformations that ensue even from these most temporary of encounters. The mikveh precedes those who use it and benefit from it and reflect on its meaning. And in these first moments God is the great divider, distinguishing between different states of being and setting them apart from one another. Here, too, the mikveh connotes separation and distance, as what was once joined together is now isolated for a greater purpose: the coming of humankind. And I imagine: if there has always been a mikveh, then there has always been waiting.

This is the primordial pose—when everything is unformed, when everything is in a waiting state. Every Shabbat I pray, “our soul hath waited for the Lord” (Psalms 33.20), and I am reminded of both the consistency and profundity of this waiting, until it begins to seem an aspect of my design. On some level, I recognize that to be religious is to be unfinished. So where is my wife, as she slips beneath the surface of the waters of the mikveh? Here is what I know: she is apart from me, and I am alone. That she is with God is small consolation. Charged with anticipation, I pace the house or I sit on a bench in the middle of Broadway. I will confess: I always take a shower. This is my mikveh—a pale, envy-laden, imitation. Waiting for her, I am aware of my own incompleteness.

The High Holidays draw near. If during these days the nation of Israel is purified, then here is another parable: Yom Kippur as mikveh. We submerge ourselves in the customs and the liturgy of the day. We abstain. We wear white, and we hardly breathe except to utter words of prayer. And just on the other side, Hashem waits for us as I wait for my wife, perhaps wondering, as I do: How are they spending these precious moments, as they bathe in the living waters of this day?

Simon Fleischer teaches english and jewish philosophy at SAR High School in Riverdale, in the Bronx. he lives in Teaneck, N.J., with his wife and three children.