Rabba Sara Hurwitz shares her thoughts on the meaning of mikveh and the Gathering the Waters International Mikveh Conference. Rabba Hurwitz is a member of the Rabbinic Staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat.

Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, (Provence, 1249-1306) teaches that on the day that God commanded Abraham to become circumcised, Sarah went to the mikveh.  Despite the fact that the Torah makes no mention of Sarah’s dip, the Meiri recognized that Sarah sought out a ritual that would transform her essence, changing her from Sarai to Sarah, from a woman to the mother of the Jewish people.

This is the power of the mikveh. The waters have the ability to transform, to unleash human potential.  It is for this reason that so many men and woman gravitated to Mayyim Hayyim’s conference, “Gathering the Waters” this past week.  People came together to share their stories of how the waters served as a source of healing from traumatic events, uplifted their souls in times of sadness, and caressed their skin at life altering moments.

And yet, in order for the mikveh waters to release its mystical powers, one has to be open to embrace the waters. And while mikveh is undergoing a renaissance, and many are finding opportunities to incorporate mikveh use into their lives, for many women, going to the mikveh is laced with tension.  A tedious ritual that is associated with spouses refraining from sex and intimacy.

When I was a child, I almost drowned. I remember the fear and darkness of being engulfed by water. Ever since then, I have had dissonant feelings about submerging my entire body, head and all, into water. So you can imagine my fear the first time I had to immerse in the mikveh before I got married. I say “had to” because, as a Modern Orthodox woman, I knew that it was a mitzvah that I would accept, just as I am vigilant about keeping the laws of kashruth and Shabbat.  I knew that going to the mikveh, especially the first time, was supposed to be a spiritually uplifting moment.  And yet, I was scared.

And sure enough, when I went down in a beautiful mikveh in south Florida, it was not so successful. That “kosher, kosher, kosher” that I was waiting for did not come. I was flailing my arms, and couldn’t seem to get my head all the way under the water.  After many tries, I finally emerged, and for a fleeting moment, I felt an unexplainable sensation of serenity and joy. And that’s the challenge of traditional mikveh use. How can one turn a traditional and extremely intimate practice, one that for some is a source of stress and difficulty, into a spiritually uplifting moment? Every month?

And then I remember the Meiri’s suggestion that Sarah our foremother sought out the mikveh as a meaningful transformative moment. For those of us who struggle with mikveh use, we have much to gain from Mayyim Hayyim. Mayyim Hayyim is a reminder of what mikveh is supposed to be. It serves as a challenge—to inspire traditional mikveh users to see the “mah im”, the “what if,” the possibility of the mikveh’s power to change our beings. To uplift our souls. Every month.