Mikveh: It’s Not Magic

by Carrie Bornstein, Acting Executive Director

With nightfall coming so early during the winter, Shabbat lunch with friends often turns into a lazy post-meal afternoon of exhausted parents sitting around enjoying each other’s company, while their animated young children turn the host’s place upside-down.  Hypothetically speaking, of course.

On one such recent occasion, the next thing we knew, Shabbat was over.  Somewhere between my daughter’s moderately valiant attempt to return play food to its rightful location and search for her little brother’s mis-matched socks, Jamie (my husband) returned with our car, via the ride across town he’d scored from our gracious host.

I changed the last diaper of the day, (finally) found said socks, and we piled the family back into our car to return home.

Minutes later, a puzzled Eliana yelled out, “But Ema! [the only name I can reasonably justify being called by my kids – I couldn’t possibly be a mom, could I?]  Why are we driving in the car?  It’s Shabbat!”

“No, Ellie,” I replied.  “Shabbat is over – you see how it’s dark outside?”

“But we didn’t make havdallah!”  (the brief ceremony that, in our house, transitions us from the holy day of Shabbat to making a beeline for watching Curious George on the computer.)

In that moment, I realized the impact of ritual for my four-year old daughter.  Her cognitive dissonance spoke volumes.

After our subsequent conversation about how we’d do that when we got home, and that havdallah doesn’t cause Shabbat to end, but rather, marks the transition point between Shabbat and the rest of the week, my mind kept going.

Isn’t this just like mikveh?  When a person chooses to immerse prior to Shabbat, at the end of cancer treatment, before their wedding, upon healing from a miscarriage… their immersion does not cause anything to happen.  It does not bring on Shabbat, cause remission, enact marriage, or make the hurt go away.  The water, after all, is not magic.

It can, however, mark a turning point for something that’s already happening.   When I went to the mikveh before my wedding, I unexpectedly felt the enormity of what was about to happen in my life, and suddenly, I was ready.  I’ve seen this sort of thing happen hundreds of times (1,400, roughly) each year at Mayyim Hayyim.  People who say things like, “Now I have the strength to move on after my mourning,” or “I finally feel ready to become a mother.”

There are, of course, some immersions that truly do cause a change.  Immersing for conversion, for example, actually makes a person Jewish.  Immersing for niddah permits two partners to be in physical contact with one another again.  I’m still working on how all this fits into the analogy.  (If you have any thoughts – I’d love to hear them in the comments below.)

In any event, to bring in some wisdom from Rabbi Ferris Bueller, life does move pretty fast.  Whether it’s mikveh, havdallah, or anything else that causes us to stop and look around once in a while, these rituals give us the power to not miss even a single moment.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Acting Executive Director.  Follow her on twitter @carolinering.

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