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Sunshine in a jar

Returning to the divine womb

The Hasidic masters, it turns out, are really fond of birth imagery. I'd noticed this before, specifically while reading texts about Passover; in the Hasidic imagination, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds can become the breaking of the waters as we emerge from the "narrow place" of Egypt -- a kind of cosmic birth canal. Anyway, I'd thought of this as primarily a Passover metaphor, but it turns out that there are ways to draw on birth imagery in talking about the current time of year, too. For obvious reasons I'm hyper-conscious of this imagery now, and the prevalence of these metaphors is blowing me away.

In my Moadim l'Simcha class (Seasons of Our Rejoicing) we've been studying a text for this time of year written by the B'nai Yissaschar which talks about mikvah and (re)birth. (Bear with me; this gets a bit technical, but I think the payoff is worth it.)

He begins by asserting that "Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so the Holy Blessed One purifies Israel." (A mikvah is a ritual bath; I've posted about mikvah many times before.) Any source of "living waters" -- a river, a stream -- is a kosher mikvah. But if a mikvah is going to be enclosed, then it needs to contain 40 se'ot of water and the water needs to have some kind of flow. The B'nai Yissaschar likens the 40 se'ot of water in a kosher mikvah to the 40 days of the month of Elul plus the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So this span of days which we're in right now -- this month of spiritual preparation, plus what we commonly call the Days of Awe -- becomes a kind of mikvah-in-time.

Immersing in this temporal mikvah, he says, can be a key to teshuvah il'a'ah, supernal repentance/return, returning to God at the highest level. Here's where he gets kind of far-out: he uses kabbalistic language to say that this is a season for metaphysical immersion in the sefirah (aspect of divinity) called binah, "discernment," which in kabbalah and Hasidut is known as "the upper mother." (If this language is unfamiliar to you, just run with it -- explaining it fully would take a lot of space and time. I can recommend good books if you're interested.) In other words: immersion in this mikvah-in-time is a chance to immerse ourselves in the divine feminine source of all creation. To return, as it were, to the divine womb.

Binah is the high place of return, the high source from which everything flows and to which, in this season, we can aspire to return again. On the tree of the sefirot, binah is second-to-the-top; there's only one sefirah above it, and in general that topmost sefirah is inaccessible to us. Binah is as high as we can go...and this season of the year is the time when we are uniquely able to "go there." These are the y'mei teshuvah -- a phrase which can be translated, fortuitously, either as "days of teshuvah" or "waters of teshuvah." (And we're back to the theme of entering the waters again.) This is such a radical idea to me that I want to repeat it again: he's saying that this is our season for re-entering the womb of God.

Part of what I love here is that while it may seem transgressive to consider God in these terms, it's actually not. Granted, kabbalah goes some pretty interesting places when it comes to conceptualizing the multifaceted nature of the divine, but even in mainstream Jewish tradition there's a connection between God and the womb. One of our most common names for God is ha-rachaman, "The Merciful" or "The Compassionate" -- and rachaman shares a root with rechem, "womb." When we speak of el maleh rachamim ("God, filled with compassion") we're talking about a God whose mercy flows forth from the divine womb. We may be using masculine language, but the implications of that language are strongly female. I see this as a kind of gender-bending consciousness-raiser which is so built-in to our liturgy that most of the time we forget it's even there. God (masculine word) is the One in whose womb (feminine concept) all creation is nurtured.

As I enter my third trimester of pregnancy, this language amazes me. If God is the wombful One, then I with my womb and its inhabitant am somehow partaking in a flicker of God's experience as the nurturer of humanity. On a microcosmic level, my son is cushioned in the waters of my uterus, and I care for him in every way I can. On a macrocosmic level, says the B'nai Yissaschar, now is the season when all of us can return to those waters in a cosmic sense, and emerge reborn into renewed spiritual life, ready to draw down the cosmic abundance with which God nurtures all creation. This is our time of year to return to the womb Which cradles us still.