I have kept a diary for the past fifteen years. Some of the entries appear in italics
It's been thirty-five years since I married the nicest Jewish man in the world. Under the chupah was not the time for the rabbi to mention the word mikvah. In fact he never mentioned it al all. I didn't know about women going to the mikvah before their wedding day.
My three children grew up in a warm, loving and elegant home in an upscale neighborhood in Montreal. We celebrated our Judaism on all the holidays in a one-dimensional way - through eating and reciting the appropriate prayers ona a very literal level, not knowing that there was a deeper, richer meaning to everything that we were doing. Synagogue figured in our lives on the occasions of weddings, bar mitzvahs and the occasional brit.
When I was thirty-nine, my youngest son had his bar mitzvah. That same year, through a number of intertwining circumstances, I discovered that Judaism, Yiddishkeit, belonged to me in a way that I never dreamed of. It was part of my past, my present and would figure, although I did not know it at the time, front and center in my future and that of my family.
When I first entered this Chabad House, I sat in the last chair near the door to make a quick exit. Believe me, I did not have a clue what was flying here. I was a Traditional Jew whose main connection with a rabbi was on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with about 1,500 other Jews. Not inspiring, I promise you. It has taken me nearly three years to be able to articulate what I have been feeling for a very long time.One day, that same year, the rabbi came over to me and suggested very gently, that perhaps I should consider going to the mikvah. My situation was that I had had a hysterectomy when I was in my thirties. What, I asked myself, was the point? I did not have a monthly cycle, would never experience what I had been hearing about - the excitement, anticipation and spiritual renewal that other women had the opportunity to have. I was not opposed to the idea, but I could not see the benefit of going. I held my true feelings in check until I got home.
The first Shabbat I came here, I was literally moved to tears. Not from the service, because I was totally clued out. But by the Chassidic melodies, which I had never in my life heard. I still cannot believe that up until then, I knew none of these beautiful, haunting, soulful songs. I tried for a long time to put into words how I felt about these niggunim (wordless melodies) and I read something recently that summed it up perfectly: "If I explain it to you, no matter how brilliantly, you won't fully comprehend the experience of eating a piece of chocolate. But, if I give you apiece to taste, you will immediately comprehend. It doesn't require an illustration anymore." Chassidic niggunim go straight to the heart, bypassing the intellect...
I was angry at God at that point in my life. Not only did it seem to me that He had held back the treasures of Judaism till I was forty, it seemed that I also would never get a chance to experience, together with my husband the beautiful and intimate ritual of mikvah. To me, it felt as though I had been robbed of that part of my Jewish womanhood. And so, when I got home that night I cried bitterly.
A few weeks passed and the rabbi broached the subject again. Because of our previous discussion, I had become more acutely aware of mikvah and listened more carefully when my friends, who, like me, were discovering new facets of Judaism, spoke about it. They said they were scared; they voiced their fears as to how their husbands would react; they said they did not understand the concept of being unclean. Perhaps because it was not going to be part of my regular routine, I did not view mikvah the way they did. I saw it as a privilege, a chance to spend time with God alone, an opportunity to embrace who I was as a Jewish woman. And so, I agreed to go. The weeks between the suggestion and my agreeing had allowed my anger with God to dissipate and given me time to reflect and learn, more in depth, about the mitzvah of mikvah.
I spoke with my husband and he agreed with me. It was something that we had to decide as a couple - four ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren.
I did the preparation as any woman would, even though I did not, as stated above, go through my cycle. Finally it was time to go. My anticipation was at a heightened level. I had read an exquisite book call Total Immersion by Rivkah Slonim, about, amongst other stories, the sacrifices that women had made, in the not so distant past, to go to the mikvah. I felt honored, fortunate, scared and unsure. I also felt part of a chain, a link in the history of Jewish women.
Every woman who goes to the mikvah has a different emotional experience. Some feel very litt.e, some feel very spiritual, some in between. While immersed in the mikvah, as well as when one lights Shabbat candles, one can pray to Hashem for anything. The gates of Heaven are open for those few precious moments.
When I finally went, I forgot to pray, instead concentrating very hard on immersing myself completely, from my toes to every strand of hair on my head. The water seemed to wash away the anger I had once felt. My tears mixed with the water in the mikvah in thankfulness to God for allowing me to be born of Jewish parents, for bringing me to this moment.
I recently read an article by that same author, Rivkah Slonim. This part of the article describes, beautifully, why one should go, even once to the mikvah:
"For the postmenopausal woman, one final immersion in the mikvah offers purity for the rest of her life. Even a woman who has never used the mikvah before should make a special effort to immerse after menopause (it is never too late for a woman to do this even if many years have elapsed since her menopause), thus allowing for all subsequent intimacies to be divinely blessed.
The single greatest gift granted by God to humankind is teshuvah - the possibility of return - to start anew and wash away the past. Teshuvah allows man to rise above the limitations imposed by time and makes it possible to affect our life retroactively. A single immersion in the mikvah late in life may appear insignificant to some, a quick and puny act. Yet coupled with dedication and awe, it is a monumental feat; it brings purity and its regenerative power not only to the present and future but even to one's past..."
It was a fleeting act yet a spiritually enduring one for me. I went once and it's over. If one is younger, still having their cycle, mikvah plays a central role in their life.
Then I wrote this in 2002:
Faith is a word that always existed in my lexicon. For me, ten years ago, faith meant, for example, that I knew that the sun would rise in the morning and set in the evening. But the concept of faith as it applied on a personal level was distant from me. Truthfully, I didn't even know to need faith. Things transpired in my life and I coped or didn't. What was there to have faith in?
Faith, as I have learned, means devotion. Not in the sense that I blindly follow, like a robot. Not, as many say, "Oh, you found the 'faith' ". Faith as a noun is static. But as a verb it is constantly growing. Faith comes from my essence. It's who I am and it was always there.
No: "One minute, I have to go and think about that." NO: "I don't like this part. I only like the other parts." No: "It wasn't supposed to be this way so I'll rethink the whole thing." It means absolute, unwavering commitment. It means that God has given me a gift and He would be so, so happy if I opened it.
Today I have begun to understand about God on my simple level, in a way that he has enabled me to. I have learned that not only does He need me, He put me here with all His heart and soul. The reason He created the world and put me into it, as a Jew no less, is to intensify and speed up a time when the world will not only believe that there is a God, but it will actually feel His presence.
Mikvah is a personal bequest from God to Jewish women. When receiving a gift one has a choice - open it or leave it closed for a while, until...until one is ready to see what's inside. But sometimes, perhaps once in a lifetime, one should open the gift simply because of whom it came from. No matter what's inside.
Mikvah is a gift to yourself, to your husband, to your children, their children and so on until the time when the world will be what God wants it - free of illness, of suffering, a world of peace and harmony. Knowing that observing the mitzvah of mikvah will bring the world closer to this day is extraordinary. Knowing that I can be a part of it is incredible. And finally, the benefits in this world are the icing on the cake.
I recently attended a lecture by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. His talk was on Jewish continuity. All during the evening he kept repeating the same question - what would happen to the world if the Jews disappeared? Finally, toward the end of the evening, he answered the question. "The world would be a riddle with no answer." Through the Torah, the Jews hold the answer to the world. And it is the Jewish woman who holds the key to continuity, for it is the mother, not the father, who determines if a child is Jewish.
Mikvah is like a soft, wordless Chassidic melody, going straight to the heart, bypassing the intellect. What a wondrous, remarkable place our world would be if every Jewish woman sang one song, with one voice. May we merit this moment without delay.
Reprinted from Girl Meets God: The Gift of Being A Jewish Woman by Joannie Tansky
Joannie is available for speaking engagements. Click here for more