By Rachel Eisen, Director of Development
Parshat Shemini begins with fire and brimstone, as the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is finally opened for its use in worshipping God in the desert. The opening, however, is marred by tragedy when Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange” sacrifice and are punished by an internally-consuming fire as a result.
Then, in the wake of this disturbing incident, we abruptly get a long list of what animals are kosher and not kosher. It’s an interesting mix of story and law, although I suppose it’s pretty emblematic of our tradition.
But one line that stands out to me — unsurprisingly — is chapter 11, verse 36, which reads:
“אַ֣ךְ מַעְיָ֥ן וּב֛וֹר מִקְוֵה־מַ֖יִם יִהְיֶ֣ה טָה֑וֹר”
(Ach ma’ayan u’bor mikveh mayyim yihyeh tahor)
The first word, “ach,” can mean a couple of things, and one way to translate this verse is “BUT a spring or a cistern where water gathers will be pure.”
This is, of course, our source for what constitutes a mikveh, Judaism’s ritual bath for marking transitional moments.
Okay, I have a confession to make: while I am very familiar with this verse as the source for mikveh, a verse that we teach at almost all of Mayyim Hayyim’s educational programs, I actually had no idea its context until I looked at this parasha.
So, naturally, I had some questions: Why is this verse stuck in this long list of what we can and cannot eat? And why does that list come after the story of Nadav and Avihu?
If we understand the verse to begin with a pivot — “BUT a spring or a cistern where water gathers will be pure” — then we should understand that we are about to learn something that is different from what came before it.
For starters, the mikveh is not for animals. An animal that the Torah has deemed unkosher cannot be made kosher through a dunk in the mikveh. And yet humans do have the capacity for change, and the mikveh provides just that: an opportunity to change your status, your state of being.
When you enter the mikveh waters, you are not, as is a common misconception, cleansing your body. You are, rather, cleansing your soul, transitioning from a state of tamei (ritual unreadiness) to a state of tahor (ritual readiness).
Thus, when we translate “ach” as “BUT,” we are signaling a recognition that — even though animals are also God’s creatures and are worthy of ethical treatment and good lives — it is we humans who are made b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image) and it is we humans who have the ability to transform ourselves.
Notably, the mikveh is not magic. You can’t just jump in and expect to be changed. There is preparation involved — getting yourself physically and spiritually ready to go in the mikveh can often take more time and more work than going in the water itself. And that brings us back to Nadav and Avihu.
This parasha begins with a detailed description of how Aaron readied the altar of the Mishkan and readied the animal for sacrifice. But in the case of the “strange” sacrifice of Aaron’s sons, the Torah simply says: “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which the LORD had not enjoined upon them.”
There are many interpretations and commentaries on what made Nadav and Avihu’s sacrifice “strange” or “alien.” Midrash suggests that the verses which follow forbidding priests not to be drunk when in service means that the two were drunk and thus their sacrifice was inappropriate. Others suggest they did it in private, without including the whole of the community, or that the timing was wrong, or that they were wearing the incorrect garb. Whatever the reason, the lack of intentional preparation here is apparent.
Just as humans have the capacity to change and transform ourselves and our behavior, so too do we have this awesome capacity for relationship with God. But, as with the mikveh, we cannot just walk up to God and expect to be answered or expect to have our problems solved. As with our human relationships, our relationship with God takes work — perhaps even more work and more preparation than our relationships with each other.
Judaism gives us many tools — rituals like mikveh, atonement, prayer, and more — to transform ourselves and our relationship with God. As humans, we are given access to these tools because of our unique capacity for change. But each of these rituals also requires work on our part, whether that work be preparation, intention, or introspection.
Prepare yourself for Pesach with Mayyim Hayyim – immerse now and emerge from winter to spring, from seed to blossom, from slavery to freedom.
Rachel Eisen is the Director of Development at Mayyim Hayyim.