May 10, 2016
On the day that would become the first night of Pesach, I went to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse. Some people immerse before Shabbat; some people immerse before Pesach. This day was pre- both of those, but those weren't the reasons I was immersing. I was immersing to mark a life transition, in hopes of emerging into the liberation of Pesach feeling spiritually cleansed and ready for a new beginning.
I've been to Mayyim Hayyim a number of times -- I wrote about touring the mikveh at the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference in 2010; several years ago I participated there in a beit din as a new Jew entered the covenant; we held a focus group there as part of the ALEPH Listening Tour last fall -- but there's a world of difference between visiting the place as a witness and visiting it as a participant.
(I had planned to come to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse before my ordination as a rabbi, in a ritual of preparing myself to receive the transmission of smicha. But I live two and a half hours away by car, and on the date of that pre-ordination mikveh appointment a winter snowstorm kept me in the Berkshires, so I found an alternate way to immerse. This time the weather posed no such difficulties.)
When we were there for the Listening Tour focus group in the fall I noticed their attention to detail. How even the bench in the garden has a water motif in its tiling, and even the door handles curve like ocean waves. How there are seven steps down into each mikveh (one for each day of the week, one for each of the seven "lower" sefirot), how each mikveh pool is round evoking the womb and its waters.
When I came this time I noticed even more loving attention to detail, and was grateful for all of it. The seven kavanot (intentions) before immersion. The supplies they thoughtfully provide, from a pumice sponge for one's feet to gentle cleansers for face and body and hands. How easy it is to turn the handle to allow living waters (rain from the cistern) to "kiss" the warm waters of the mikveh itself.
When I arrived, the mikveh guide asked whether I wanted to bring a laminated ritual sheet into the mikveh with me. I asked whether they had rituals available for divorce, and they did. (I wasn't obligated to tell her for what reason I was immersing... but I feel strongly that while there is grief in the end of any marriage, there should not be shame, so I didn't mind being open about what had brought me there.)
I chose to immerse without a witness. That was the right move, because as soon as I entered the mikveh room I began to weep. (I had the feeling that was going to happen.) I paused on each of the seven steps and cried. I stayed longest on the bottom step, the one that maps to the aspect of God known as malchut -- sovereignty, or nobility, or the immanent indwelling Presence of the Divine we call Shekhinah.
My mikveh guide had given me four laminated rituals to choose from: one for the end of a relationship, one for difficult life transitions, one for healing, and one for pre-Pesach immersion. I sat with all four of them in the dressing room. In the end, I brought three of them into the mikveh room with me, and used excerpts from each. I began with these words from the ritual following the end of a relationship:
I stand here, having completed the unbinding of a relationship.
I stand here as a Jewish woman with dignity and with strength.
I stand alone, a whole and complete person, no longer bound as a companion and partner.
The third line is the one that cracked my heart all the way open. "No longer bound as a companion and partner." No longer bound; no longer a companion or partner. Even when ending a marriage is the right thing to do -- and ending this one was my decision -- it still comes with tremendous grief. Part of my spiritual work at this season is allowing that grief to ebb and flow as it needs to do, without shutting it off or ignoring it or trying to short-circuit it.
I immersed three times, with different words of prayer and different intentions before each. I paused for a long time before the final immersion, and prayed the words I needed to pray, and quietly sang parts of the Song at the Sea, and went under. I counted the seven steps back out of the mikveh: from Shekhinah back up the Tree of Life to lovingkindness. I took my time dressing and getting ready to go.
As I was about to leave, my mikveh guide told me that everyone there appreciates my work -- which was a gift to hear. (I said I appreciate their work too, which I do! I've been a longtime fan of Mayyim Hayyim from afar, though this was my first time immersing there.) And then she added "I didn't say that until now because I wanted you to be here just as a person, not as a public figure" -- and that was a gift, too.
We wished each other a Pesach of sweetness and liberation. I walked out into the garden and sat for a while on the bench tiled with the water motif. I called a friend, and watched a big fuzzy bee dart from flower to flower. And my friend talked with me about Hallel and Shekhinah and the Song at the Sea until I felt grounded and steady enough to operate a car and to re-enter the flow of the world.
At Pesach we ask "why is this night different from all other nights?" Right now everything feels different from anything that came before. My world has shifted on its axis, and I know it will be a while before I feel steady on my feet again. I'm working on accepting that. Entering the mikveh unlocked a wellspring of tears in me. While those tears are sometimes wrenching, I believe that they bring healing, too.