by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director
Nervous. Skeptical. Proud. Curious. Matter of fact. As a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim, I am never certain what emotion will present itself accompanying the guest walking through the door. First-timers are sometimes a bit anxious and often apologetic for their naïveté about mikveh. I assure them that as newcomers to the ritual and our organization, they are in the majority here.
“Shall we walk around?” I ask, offering a glass of water or a warm mug of tea. The peacefulness of the space and the beauty and simplicity of the mikveh pool put guests at ease surprisingly quickly. I feel confident in my ability to effect that transition with a warm smile, a calm voice, and a reassuring demeanor. I consider it one of the most important ways I can enhance a guest’s experience, because I know that their anxiety and uncertainty could easily be a barrier to the spiritual and emotional opportunity mikveh can offer.
I know well the power of our space. Its power is in the safety, warmth, and judgement-free impression it conveys. These elements let our guests know that this is a place where they are free to connect to their emotions deeply when they’re here. To feel held, supported, and able to open up – to their past, their present, their hopes, their fears, their joys, their sorrows. As a Guide, I see myself as an extension of the space, actively complementing its embrace.
While we are blessed to witness many joy-filled moments, there are also those who seek us out in difficult times. They cross our threshold with heavy hearts, walking slowly, holding themselves gingerly in their grief, fragile and uncertain. I meet them with the same warm smile and reassurance, hoping my eyes and my spirit convey my sympathy. Sometimes words are a bridge, sometimes they seem superfluous.
Recently my support extended to accompanying a guest in the mikveh area at her request. She had suffered a tragic loss and come after a month of mourning. We had collaborated on some prayers, poems, and blessings for her to read as part of her ritual, and she placed them at the edge of the quiet pool just before descending the steps. I held a sheet slightly above eye level to give her privacy. The water embraced her and her grief poured out, palpable in its intensity. I felt helpless. At that moment, no longer could a smile or a word provide solace to her. No hug could reach her. I struggled to determine my role, feeling a sense of urgency to provide some support and failing to know what it could be. And then I realized that my role was to silently and simply bear witness to her grief: to hold the space for her so she would not be alone in it, to direct toward her echoing cries my thoughts of comfort.
El na r’fa na la – Please, God, heal her. Just focusing silently on these few powerful words, once spoken by Moses for his sister Miriam, helped me realize that I was not helpless at all. There is power and infinite comfort in silent support, in being quietly present. Not trying to find the right words, but rather believing in one’s ability to effect healing by simply sitting with someone in their grief. We cannot take someone’s grief on ourselves, nor can we make it disappear. But we can let them know they are not alone. Whether friend, family, fellow congregant, or Mikveh Guide, we carry this healing art and power within us always.