Pursuing Purity: Jump Right In!
Rabbi Akiva said: Fortunate are you Israel! Before Whom do you purify yourselves; and Who purifies you – Your Father in Heaven! As it is written… (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 17:13) “Hashem is a Mikvah for Israel.” Just as the mikvah purifies the impure, the Holy one, Blessed be He, purifies Israel. [Mishnah, Yoma, chapter 8 (85b)]
As the Talmud exclaims in many instances, there are certain concepts that were they not expressed by the prophets, one could never make such a bold statement. Who would have thought to compare the Almighty, as it were, to a mikvah?! (A mikvah is a body of water specially prepared for ritual immersion, which removes the impurity of one who has become ritually impure (tamei) through one of numerous impurities recorded in the Torah.) Since, however, scripture makes the comparison, it behooves us to question: How, indeed, are we to understand our relationship with G-d through the metaphor of ritual immersion?
The holy Rambam (Maimonides) writes (Laws of Mikvaos 11:12):
It is self-evident that the concepts of “purity” and “impurity” are Heavenly-ordained concepts; that is, they are not concepts that one can understand based on human intellect. Tu’mah (impurity) is not like mud or dirt, that through immersion in water one is cleansed. [Since purification is not dependent on the physical ability of water to cleanse,] it depends mainly on one’s intent [to become pure through immersion]. Thus, [our Sages] say: One who immerses, but did not have the intent [of becoming pure], it is as if he never immersed.
There is, however, a deeper concept here: Just as one who has intent to purify his body [from contamination], as soon as he immerses, he becomes pure, even though no physical change has taken place, so too, one who has the intent to purify his mind and soul from iniquity and evil thoughts, as soon as he makes up his mind to do so, and “immerses” himself in the “purifying waters of the mind,” regarding him it is written (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 36:25), “And I will sprinkle upon you pure waters, and you will be purified.”
We all know that “pure-mindedness” is a much desired and sought- after quality in Judaism. Yet to us, it seems elusive, if not completely unreachable. All the more so living as we do in an era where “open- mindedness” is a far more fashionable catchword than its “purer” relative. How is one to reach for this evasive goal – especially one who feels he has already sullied his once-pure mind with the dirt and smut which supposedly shape the culture of enlightened society?
While daily immersion in mikvah is commonplace among chassidim, its practice is not common among other sectors of Orthodoxy. It was thus with some surprise that a certain Torah sage was observed going to mikvah every day. Once, someone mustered up the courage to question the sage’s somewhat unusual departure from custom: Why had he taken upon himself to go to mikvah every day?
“Let me explain,” he said. “I was once present at the conversion of a proselyte. The very last step of conversion process is immersion in a mikvah, after which he attains the status of a Jew. So I got thinking: If the mikvah is so powerful as to transform a gentile into a Jew, how much more so must it have the power of making a Jew into a better Jew! From then on, I decided to get-up half an hour earlier, in order to go to mikvah…”
The message of mikvah, says Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polna’ah zt”l (a renowned disciple of the holy Ba’al Shem Tov zt”l – see K’sones Passim, parshas Emor, page 21) is: Purity is not as far off as you think, nor does it depend entirely on you. All you have to do is have the intent to become pure; Hashem takes care of the rest. With this he explains the above Mishnah: Just as the mikvah purifies the impure – just like with regard to physical impurity, the main thing is having the intent to become pure through one’s immersion: So too Hashem purifies Israel – the same is true for one who desires to become pure of mind; as soon as one truly decides and commits to doing so, Hashem is there to help him reach his goal.
In this week’s parsha, Emor, we find that immersion alone is not always the end of the purification process. At times, even after immersion in a mikvah, one remains tamei (impure) until sunset. Perhaps this alludes to the above concept.
The sun, unlike the moon, is completely self-sufficient. It symbolizes the desire to “do it on your own.” Indeed, many ancient pagan religions were based on worship of the sun. One who thinks that he can attain purity, whether physical or spiritual, on his own, is mistaken. Our part in purification is the intent and commitment to purify, to change our selves and our lives for the better. To divorce ourselves from factors and situations that detract and distance us from the purity we seek, so that we are not, as the Talmud expresses it, like those who “immerse themselves while still grasping the sheretz (impure object) in their hands.” The rest, says Hashem, leave up to Me.
So we wait for the sun to set, symbolically acknowledging that it is not we that have accomplished purity, but that Hashem grants us purity if we have the fortitude and commitment to so desire. May the Almighty grant us the strength to truly desire purity, and the assistance to reach our goal.
Have a good Shabbos.