Art Gallery and Education Center, Potpourri

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation lists seven practical steps for the removal of chatzizot (barriers) that might come between the water and me. This document also offers seven intentions (kavanot) that focus my mind on removing these barriers with loving attention and respect for my body. Having used the mikveh myself for many reasons, I’ve never been able to read the kavanot all the way through. Somewhere along the way my mind gets stuck. I know why: As I remove the chatzizot, I am greeting the everyday insecurities about my body that I usually try to ignore.

Here are two of the seven that particularly stump me:

2) Hiddur Mitzvah. The unadorned body is beautiful in itself.

Remove all jewelry as well as makeup, paying special attention to the eyes.

Remove nail polish on fingers and toes…

4) B’tzelem Elohim. I am made in the image of God.

Remove all clothing, eyeglasses, contact lenses, dental plates, hearing aids.

Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his birth, as the day of her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being…

The truth is, I have always simply intellectualized these words. Yes, of course we are made in the image of God. Of course, the naked body is beautiful. However, what would it look like to actually believe these words about myself as I prepare for the mikveh waters?

You’ve probably heard the term hiddur mitzvah, or beautifying Jewish life, in a slightly different context than what’s offered above. For me, the term conjures up images of making sure there is a nice, new tablecloth for our Shabbos meal, or, as it is sometimes interpreted, going the extra mile when performing a mitzvah (commandment). This term connotes adornment, enhancement, and beauty. It was not surprising to me, then, when a Mikveh Guide recently noted that the hiddur mitzvah found in our Seven Kavanot seems to be flipped on its head.

Our use of hiddur is a bare and essential one; it may indeed flip the original meaning, encouraging us to recognize that we are beautiful to begin with. Such play with definitions has led to two very different outcomes: avoiding it while I’m in the mikveh, and, on the other hand, constantly confronting these complex questions with my students as a mikveh educator. The contradiction is not lost on me.

As a teacher, these kavanot are a treasure. I’ve had many important conversations with youth and adults as we’ve read them aloud and discussed what it means to see our bodies as “just right” exactly as they are. These statements are not straightforward. For people who are transgender, gender non-conforming, have physical scars, or a physical disability, these words will mean many different things.

While I’m still not ready to read through all Seven Kavanot with ease, for me, it’s a worthy goal. For others, these words may not communicate the essence of what’s needed to prepare for immersion. Regardless of how we come to these kavanot, I consider myself fortunate to work at a mikveh where this struggle to find what is holy about my body can be bigger than me. It is simultaneously a private thought, a public blog post, and a conversation in community with others. I hope you will join the conversation.

Leeza NeglevLeeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.