[With Simcha Baer]
The Mikvah is an integral part of Jewish life and observance. It is closely tied to ritual purification, tahara, and is required by halacha in conversions, by women before marital relations commence, and before appearing before Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash. It is also a common custom for people to go to the mikvah before the festivals (when coming to the Beis Hamikdash required ritual purity), and by some to go to the mikvah before Shabbos, or indeed every day.
We understand the mikvah is not about physical cleanliness, but about spiritual cleanliness.
But there are a number of very curious facts about mikvahs that are not easily explained in the above. For example, Rambam in hilchos mikvaos notes a single mitzva of mikvah, and presents it by saying that tahara follows tevila – the implication is that purity does not come by dipping into the water, but by leaving it. By the same token, the Torah tells us many times that even when one goes to the mikvah, in many cases one is not yet tahor until nightfall. If a mikvah purifies us, then why is there a delay between going to the Mikvah, and becoming purified?
Mikvah water itself is ideally the ocean, but could be any natural still body of water (like a spring or lake or pond) above a certain size. And when we make an artificial mikva, we must be very careful to handle the water in such a way that it comes from the ground. Rain water can be used, if it connects to the ground first: Halacha does not allow for a shower of rain water, no matter how dense, to be a mikvah. Rivers and other moving bodies of water are not kosher mikvahs.
All this ties together very nicely when we recall that the purpose of mankind is to heal the separation of the world that G-d effected when he created the world. We are meant to elevate the physical and unite it with the spiritual, to unify heaven and earth.
The earth itself is not capable of becoming impure, tamei (this is why, for example, we can purify knives in the ground). It is already 100% earth, and cannot be ritually contaminated. The earth is what it is, and we cannot change that. What we can do is build a bridge between the earth and heaven, connecting the two.
The reason we go to the Mikvah is not because the mikvah makes us more holy. It does not do that. The mikvah also does not make us more spiritually pure. The mikvah does not connect us closer to heaven. It does the opposite – it renews the connection between ourselves and the earth itself. It is a chance to reconnect ourselves with the physical and earthly.
Rabbi Lipsky points out that if someone climbs a stair, their feet have to go first – the lowest part of the body must rise before the head is able to follow. Judaism is not a mystical religion – we don’t believe in elevating our hearts and heads before our body. On the contrary: elevating the physical entails connecting to the physical world, and only then can we build ourselves up spiritually.
So in order to unite the heavens and the earth, we leave the mikvah to start making that connection. Women go to the mikvah as a preparation for reuniting with their husbands b’kedusha, to create new life. All people go to the mikvah before going to the Beis Hamikdash, the closest geographical link between heaven and earth. And many go to the mikvah before Shabbos – Shabbos is the temporal connection between heaven and earth.
In other words, the mikvah is not holy in itself. It is holy as a preparatory step, a necessary but not sufficient condition for making the attempt to do something holy.
This also explains why there is often a requirement to wait after going to the mikvah, and before one is considered tahor, fit to enter the Beis Hamikdash. We are human beings, and we have to build this bridge between earth and heaven. The bridge is not built in an instant, and it is not built simply by jumping from a mikvah into G-d’s house. We are commanded to let time pass, at least into the next day (which starts that night), because the choices we make in life constitute the very bricks and mortar of the bridge we build. Even with all the ritual baths in the world, G-d needs us to live as holy people, to fill the gap between the waters above and below with our deeds, following G-d’s will. Any analogy to a baptism breaks down here: to demonstrate that we belong in the presence of Hashem, it is not just that we dip in the water, we must also spend a normal day doing mitzvos.
Why does the water symbolize the base state, the earth itself? Because the very first reference to mikva in the Torah is on the third day, when all the waters of the seas were collected into a single contiguous area (hence flowing water cannot be a mikva) and were called Yamim. That set the stage for the next development, the envelopment of the now dry area with vegetation. In his directive to the earth to bring forth vegetation, Hashem called for the flavor of the fruit of the tree to be manifest even in the wood of the tree, but Chazal teach us that the land deviated from precisely carrying out Hashem’s directive, and neglected to follow through to the point that the wood was imbued with flavor.
For this corruption of the divine will, the land was ultimately punished when Adam was punished for his sin. We might argue that the root of the ability for man to corrupt the divine will in his own performance is inherently in the property manifest by the Adama (the source of Adam’s physical body) already on Day Three in its very first directive from Hashem. Ablution in a mikva allows one to go back in time as it were, to the point prior to the introduction of this capacity to pervert Hashem’s directives, and emerge again into Hashem’s world with a fresh perspective, like the world was before it went awry. It is the opportunity for a do-over.
Tumah is the result of human actions, of a failed creative act that did not successfully achieve the bridge between heaven and earth, and so becomes an impediment to that bridge, and needs to be cleansed. Tumah inhibits one from connecting to Hashem fully in the physical realm. Raising oneself out of the purely physical pool of water (mayim hatachtonim) allows one to break free of the suffocating limitations of a purely physical existence and orientation, and imbibe the ruach that Hashem makes available to us in this world as he takes a breath of air. And when we rise from the mikvah, we are once again prepared to attempt to bridge the gap, completing G-d’s briya by reuniting heaven and earth.