by Gary Waleik
Front and center in the book of Leviticus, tractate Mikva’ot of the Talmud, Chasidic writings and throughout Jewish literature, is the idea that a mikveh is inherently and completely holy. But haven’t we always known that water is sacred somewhere deep in our souls? Water was a means of survival for our ancestors, and continues to be for us today. But more than that, it is revered and celebrated for its holiness by many religions and cultures through ritual and prayer.
Think about the times you’ve gone for a swim at the lake your family visited each summer when you were a kid, or at an ocean beach overflowing with memories, or in a river whose clear, moving waters cooled body and mind on late July evenings.
Remember the sensations as you went completely underwater. Semi-weightlessness set in, sound and vision went somewhat askew as your body adjusted to the water’s temperature. Did you feel different in a way that went beyond the physical? Were you imbued with a sense of holiness, or at least made more aware of something bigger than yourself? Was the experience encouraging to you as you prepared to face the challenges of the coming days, weeks and months?
Oceans, rivers, lakes and ponds have been used for mikveh immersion from biblical times until the present day. If you have ever stepped away from your everyday life and taken a few minutes to immerse in a natural body of water, you may have intuited the power of a mikveh.
At the age of six, my grandparents taught me to swim on the tiny beach of an all-but-hidden glacial pond in southeast Massachusetts. The pond’s shores are ringed with scrub pine and oak, except for a sandy strand no more than twelve feet wide. The sand is so fine that it feels like wet confectioner’s sugar between the toes. The spring-fed pond is relatively small, so in summer the water is always warm and inviting. My family and I made it a point to swim there for twenty years, and each time it was a hallowed pilgrimage. But my grandparents passed away and the nearby cottage was sold. We simply stopped going. It was heartbreaking.
Seventeen years later, my wife and my sister suggested we return with our families for a summer vacation, so we did. One of our first stops was our favorite little pond. My daughter, who was six at the time, learned to swim on that same tiny beach, in the exact spot I had learned thirty-six years earlier, and where my son would learn two years later.
That day, my daughter popped out of the water and exclaimed with all the glee of a six-year old, “Daddy, I can swim!!!” I embraced the feeling of continuity, which made me happy, thankful and even a little sad at the same time. My wife and I celebrated with her, and as we did, I submerged so that nobody could see that I was crying. It was a powerful experience.
Though we had obviously not followed the protocols of a kosher mikveh immersion (washing beforehand, saying the blessings) or fulfilled the mitzvah, that wonderful little pond was a mivkeh that day and we were a holy family. The experience energized us. It was a source of strength as we faced the challenges of that year, until we returned again the following summer and restarted the process.
I immerse at Mayyim Hayyim before the High Holidays each year to regain that same sense of holiness and purpose. It’s encouraging to know that no matter how badly I get it wrong during the previous year or how out of touch I am with my better self or how overwhelming daily life can be, I can always reconnect with the Source of holiness and try again.
Mikveh-goer Gary Waleik is Senior Producer of NPR’s Only A Game, the network’s only sports program that has been running for 21 years. He is also a musician and songwriter in beloved indie rock bands Big Dipper and Mars Classroom. He lives in Metrowest with his wife and two children. His son Daniel, (pictured above in a sukkah, and not in a mikveh), immersed at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time last year.
To schedule an immersion for the High Holidays, or for any occasion, call (617) 244-1836 ext. 1 or click here.