by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director
It was a hot, sunny day during Sukkot last month and I was in Jerusalem visiting my daughter. During our ten days together, we’d plan an adventure each day. One day we scoured the Muslim Quarter of the Old City for a 200 year old address-less pastry shop called Zalatimos. We wound our way up and down the crowded alleyways, asking shopkeeper after shopkeeper, “Where is Zalatimos?” until, tucked away in the stones, we spied a hole in the wall staffed by just one man making one hand-folded phyllo pastry at a time. They were scrumptious, and all the better for the adventure.
For our adventure on this hot day, we decided to go to the Kotel (Western Wall) for the Birkat HaCohanim, the Blessing of the Priests. The words, from Numbers 6:23-27, are familiar to many: “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” Our tradition teaches that Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites with these three phrases. It is the oldest known Biblical text to have been found in hard copy; amulets with these verses written on them have been found dating from the First Temple Period, making them more than 2,500 years old — the words themselves are likely much older.
My desire to go to the Kotel for this gathering was simple curiosity. I’d heard there would be thousands of attendees, and I thought it would be an interesting site to watch. We walked through Jaffa Gate and joined the throngs of people hustling toward the Kotel. The police had created a one-way pedestrian route that sent us on a circumnavigation of the southern part of the Old City, skirting the edges of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters, up and down the hills along the city walls. As quickly as we walked, we were passed by people pushing strollers precariously, literally running by us, bumping up and down along the uneven stone roads. As always, the variety of garb and hats was fascinating, and we were grateful that our own choice of dress didn’t require a wig or head covering, stockings, and layers, as the sun bore down on us. Eventually we made our way through the metal detectors and started inching our way toward the Kotel until we couldn’t get any closer. Standing in the middle of the plaza, in a de facto women’s section, with thousands of worshipers, I looked up and around at the ancient cityscape and took in the scene – it was as dramatic as I’d imagined.
We prayed the remainder of the Musaf (additional) service and tried not to think about how hot we were and how woozy we were starting to feel. And then the blessing began. The hazzan (cantor), chanted the first word, and the huge crowd of tallit-covered kohanim filling the men’s section repeated it. “Yivarechecha!”, “Yivarechecha!”, “viyishmirecha!”, “viyishmirecha!”, “Adonai!”, “Adonai!”… Through all 15 words it continued, slowly, ceremonially, echoing off the ancient stones back to the thousands of us standing shoulder to shoulder in silent receptivity.
And it was at that moment that I no longer felt that I was there solely as an observer, out of a sense of curiosity about something distant or foreign to me. These were words I’d heard and prayed hundreds of times – these exact 15 words. I’d said them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and over my children, year after year. I suddenly felt an emotional and deep connection to these familiar words and this ancient and tribal rite that was being played out in front of me – but now with me as a full participant. I actually felt blessed, and doubly so as the blessing was extended to my daughter as well, just as I had blessed her on several occasions. I didn’t care that the blessing-givers were only men, I didn’t care that I couldn’t even see them unless I stood on tippy toes, I didn’t care that I was parched and sweaty and jostled and my blistered feet hurt. This was a new experience for me that had been enacted identically (but for the amplification) for longer than I could even fathom. I felt connected to this simple ritual through history, and in that moment of blessing-ness right there.
It is this connectedness to history that many who come to Mayyim Hayyim describe – a way to do something that Jews have been doing, the same way (albeit now in the warm, sparkling water of our beautiful, sun-lit mikva’ot) for a very, very long time. I believe that there are those who have come to this ritual with that simple expectation of fulfilling a sense of curiosity; they approach it intellectually and as an observer. But I know that, much as I experienced at the Kotel that day, it is almost impossible to remain detached, once you are in the water, saying the same words as generations before have recited. The water is embracing, and the all-encompassing nature of it pulls us in to its power and allows us to look inward – not as a bystander, but as a full participant.
May we be blessed during this holiday time of gratitude, by the richness of our tradition, and the opportunity to be full participants in our lives.
From the Mayyim Hayyim Immersion Ceremony: “In gratitude I come today to celebrate the blessings in my life. I honor those who have helped me along the way and give thanks for their supportive presence. As I prepare to immerse in the waters of the mikveh, I appreciate the journey that has brought me to this moment.”
We invite you to mark your gratitude this Thanksgiving season and enjoy a solitary moment of reflection in the living waters of the mikveh. Schedule your visit here.
Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim.