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Last week, we discussed the notion that Exile is a state of disconnect, and redemption is the rectification of that state. In Likkutei Sichot, it’s written that the true meaning of redemption is the attainment of a state of transcendence above the boundaries and limitations of this material world. However, it’s essential to realize that the intent of this statement is not that the transcendent state should nullify the world and its limitations, but rather that there should be a fusion of the infinite and the finite.1 And that Godliness is meant to be revealed in our physical world in a Mishkan, a dwelling for Hashem established in the lower realms.2
This week, as we read the end of Parashat Pekudei, which is also the end of Exodus, we read about the mikvah and its purifying, status-altering power:
וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֵ֖ת בִּגְדֵ֣י הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֖וֹ וְכִהֵ֥ן לִֽי. וְהִקְרַבְתָּ֤ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְרָחַצְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֖ם בַּמָּֽיִם׃
Bring Aharon and his sons to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and immerse them in a mikvah. Clothe Aharon with the sacred garments. Anoint him and sanctify him so that he may serve as a kohein [priest] to Me.3
Many are familiar with the mikvah, knowing of the custom of married women’s immersion as part of the laws of Family Purity, and of course as part of the process of those who convert to Judaism. In the instance of Aharon and his sons, the immersion was more of a change of status than a purification, an elevation from one state to another. We see in the case of conversion to Judaism, it is not a matter of uncleanliness or purification, but rather a change in status. As it’s written, “as soon as [the convert] immerses and emerges, he is like a born Jew in every way.”4 The mikvah process in this sense is like a rebirth, as it’s written in regards to the convert’s status change and renewal: the mivkah is like reentering the womb, as it’s written, “a convert who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child.”5 Outside of that status change, the mikvah process is used to restore a person to a state of ritual purity, as it’s written, “You shall not make your souls unclean.”6 It’s important to note that on a physical level, too, the person is required to be hygienically clean prior to entering the mikvah. The process to this day for women around nidah (a married woman’s menstrual cycle) is fairly detailed and is meant to be a spiritually healing process. Just as the womb is a space devoid of Tomeh (uncleanliness/impurity), in which the baby cannot become impure in any way, the mikvah for men and women can also be looked at as a status change from Tomeh (unclean, or impure) to Tahor (clean, or pure). The Talmud7 teaches that all the water that flows through the world ultimately has its root in the river that flowed in the Garden of Eden, so our immersion in the flowing waters of a mikvah is a re-establishment of our connection with the Edenic state.8
Ezra the Scribe, at the beginning of the Second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) period, decreed that every male that becomes impure due to a seminal emission should not learn Torah (others added that he shouldn’t pray) prior to immersing. The decree was never fully accepted, but many do have the custom to this day.
The Rambam teaches that it was the custom in North Africa and Spain that Jews would not pray, if they had a seminal emission, until immersing in a mikvah, which Rambam based on the verse, “Prepare to meet your G‑d, Israel.”9 The practice comes from the understanding that when we wake up ready to serve Hashem, we are compared to a kohen (priest) preparing to serve in the Beit HaMikdash. And just as a kohen would immerse before serving in the Beit HaMikdash, even if he was already pure,10 then we, too, should immerse before prayer.11
One of the most beautiful places in Israel is Massadah. Eighteen hundred plus years have passed since ancient Israel fought the Roman Empire. The excavations and discoveries on the top of Massadah have been fascinating. One in particular was finding two mikvahs— one likely was used for men and the other for women). The laws surrounding the building of a mikvah are very detailed and so two experts on the construction of mikvahs— Rabbi David Muntzberg and Rabbi Eliezer Alter— were brought in only to find that, in over eighteen hundred years, the construction and the importance of the Mikvah for Jews around the world has not changed. The ritual of purity through immersion in flowing water, and the construction of a mikvah in each community, is of more importance than even the construction of the synagogue, since prayer can be done in a number of different locations.
Living waters and nullifying the Ego
It’s said of those that are close to Hashem that they are like a tree planted by the water and will be rewarded with fresh leaves and Mayim Chayim (Living Waters) or forever-flowing water. Living water represents energy and health and chiyut (life) for the soul. Water represents truth and Torah, as we say, “ein mayim ela Torah,” which means, “the only water is that of Torah”. We read about the Israelites that they “traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water”12 and, as Isaiah writes, “O all who thirst, come for water.”13 We learn from this that water is Torah and, because of this, the Talmud relates that the Prophets instituted that the Torah should be read on the second and fifth days of the week as well as on Shabbat so that there should never be three days that pass without Torah.14
I love how Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches about the water’s power to nullify the ego:
We can see this from the etymology of the word Mayim, which is the Hebrew word for water. According to a number of authorities, it shares the same route as the word Mah, meaning “what.”15 When a person immerses in water, he’s nullifying his ego and asking, “What am I?” Ego is the essence of permanence, while water is the essence of impermanence. When a person is ready to replace their ego with a question, then they are also ready to be reborn with its answer. Thus, when Moses and Aaron declared,16 “We are what,” our sages comment that this was the greatest possible expression of self nullification and subjugation to God.17 When a person enters the Mikvah, he subjugates his ego to God in a similar manner.18
We can also see this in a more prosaic manner. When a person immerses himself in water, he places himself in an environment where he cannot live. Were he to remain submerged for more than a few moments, he would die from lack of air. He is literally placing himself in a state of non-existence and non-life. Breath is the very essence of life, and, according to the Torah, a person who stops breathing is no longer considered among the living. Thus, when a person submerges himself in a mikvah, he momentarily enters the realm of nonliving, so that when he emerges, he is like one reborn.
To some degree, this explains why a Mikvah cannot be made in a vessel or tub, but must be built directly in the ground, for in a sense, the mikvah also represents the grave. When a person immerses, he is temporarily in a state of nonliving, and when he emerges, he is resurrected with a new status. The representation of the mikvah as both a womb and a grave is not a contradiction. Both are places of non-breathing, and are end points of the cycle of life.19
What we have to realize is that beyond being infused with a godly soul (a spark of the Divine within us), what connects us all is water. Our bodies are mostly water, and the brain and heart, in particular, are composed of 73% water.
We tend to mirror each other’s inner belief systems, and so if we aren’t “watering” ourselves and those around us in connectedness and positivity, then individually and collectively we can’t grow.
Continually giving yourself and others life-force, and learning to quell our ego, is essential to being in a blissful and connected state.
The Clouds of Glory and Connection
The opening scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes to mind when Jim Carrey is in a funk, plays hooky from work and has a sudden urge to go to the water in Montauk in February when it is freezing. He’s pulled there, despite the weather, for it’s grounding elements. He starts to journal and then gets up talking to himself, and just then, in the corner of his eye, he sees a woman walking, and we hear him think out loud, “If only I could meet someone new. I guess my chances of that happening are somewhat diminished, seeing that I’m incapable of making eye contact with a woman I don’t know.”
We are seeing his deep craving for connection, but even more fundamental than that— connection is alignment with our own self-contained and content being. As we know, but often don’t take enough advantage of, nature tends to ground us and being away from nature back in hustle mode tends to take us away from connecting to our inner self and instead has us focused outward towards goals beyond ourselves — constant distractions from going inwards and connecting to Hashem, a mix of so many things that we feel are important in society and in what we think we need to accomplish in life to reach a certain status. The hardest but certainly the most fulfilling accomplishment is reaching oneness, contentment, the feeling of being in love with self and the feeling of being one with the space of being in your own skin in the predicaments you are in. What they call, “having it all together”. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach asks, “How do you know if you mamash (very much) have it together?” He answers, “Very simple. If you don’t have it together, you give up when things fall apart.” (Which also happens to be the title of a novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and inspired one of my favorite hip hop albums by The Roots). If you really have it together inside, there is no such thing as giving up.20 Carlebach goes on to teach that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down the mahn – “manna”- giving us the Torah, and really teaching us at the end of the book of Redemption, that if we don’t have it together, we are in exile, we are still slaves. In this same parashah, we are taught that by making a dwelling (Sanctuary) for Hashem in this world, “the glory of the Lord fills the Sanctuary.”21
As we read:
כִּי֩ עֲנַ֨ן ה’ עַֽל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְאֵ֕שׁ תִּהְיֶ֥ה לַ֖יְלָה בּ֑וֹ לְעֵינֵ֥י כל־בֵּֽית־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּכל־מַסְעֵיהֶֽם׃
The clouds of Hashem were over the Mishkan (Tabernacle) during the day, and fire was within it at night for all the families of Israel to see during their travels.”22
We see the power of the four elements— water, fire, earth, air— and how grounding they are to each of us. Being surrounded by water and waves washing over us reminds us not only of the beginning, being in the womb and sustained by it all, but being surrounded by the life-giving force that connects us all. It reminds us that we need to let go of all the little things we have created and strip ourselves down to the foundational elements of ourselves and not all the traumas and experiences that create layers of shells around our true selves. It is the same with planting our feet into the countless specks of sand or being surrounded by an expanse of desert or mountains, reminiscent of Massadah, things that humble us, bringing healthy perspectives back into our being.
Perspectives in Paradise
I was in Miami and it seemed that every house that I went to had a pool, and then further in the backyard there would be water separating that house from the next house or neighborhood in the distance. I sat next to the water and I read the pasuk this week about the mikvah, and I decided to open my Likutei Moharan to see what I would find about water, and I landed on a lesson about a super esoteric passage in the Talmud,23 which is also discussed in the Zohar.24
The story is of four Sages (Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya known as Acher and Rabbi Akiva) that enter the Pardes (the Orchard). Rashi explains that we are to understand that they ascended to heaven (through intense meditation on the Divine Name), so that they could come to a greater perception of God.
Prior to their ascension, Rabbi Akiva said to them, “When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, ‘Water! Water!’ for it is said, ‘He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes.'”25 Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died. Regarding him the verse states, “Precious in the eyes of G‑d is the death of His pious ones”26 Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed, which Rashi explains means he lost his sanity. Regarding him the verse states, “Did you find honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up.”27 Acher cut down the plantings, which is meant to be understood as his having become a heretic. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
The Tikunei Zohar adds some details that weren’t mentioned in the Talmud: a Saba (an old man) stood up and said to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Rabbi, Rabbi! What is the meaning of what Rabbi Akiva said to his students, “When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, ‘Water! Water!’ lest you place yourselves in danger, for it is said, ‘He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes.’ But it is written, “There shall be a firmament between the waters and it shall separate between water (above the firmament) and water (below the firmament).”28
Since the Torah describes the division of the waters into upper and lower, why should it be problematic to mention this division? Furthermore, since there are in fact upper and lower waters, why did Rabbi Akiva warn them, “do not say, ‘Water! Water!'”?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied, “Saba, it is proper that you reveal this secret that the chevraya [Rabbi Shimon’s circle of disciples] have not grasped clearly.” Saba answered, “Rabbi, Rabbi, Holy Lamp. Surely the pure marble stones are the letter yud — one the upper yud of the letter aleph, and one the lower yud of the letter aleph. Here there is no spiritual impurity; only pure marble stones, and so there is no separation between one water and the other; they form a single unity from the aspect of the Tree of Life, which is the vav in the midst of the letter aleph. In this regard it states, “[lest he put forth his hand] and if he take of the Tree of Life [and eat and live forever]…”29
The letter Aleph is formed with a yud (י) on top, an upside down yud (י) on the bottom and a vav (ו) diagonally between them. The gematria (numerical value) of yud is 10 and vav is 6, and as many of us know, 26 is the numerical value of Hashem’s four-letter name (the Tetragrammaton), the ultimate Divine Infinite Light.
This is certainly a very far out, mystical teaching, and the Ramak delves into the passages to bring light to the meaning behind it’s esoteric style. The Ramak explains that Rabbi Akiva is coming to explain that the Sages should not declare a separation between water ( “do not say, ‘water, water'”) because there are in fact not two types of water, so they would endanger themselves in the sin of separation. The Saba speaks from a place outside of the Pardes, because in our physical reality, in exile, there is a separation. He asks why it is problematic as it’s written, “There shall be a firmament between the waters and it shall separate…”30 the two types being the water of the firmament and the water below the firmament (in rivers, lakes and seas).
Rabbi Shimon wanted his disciples to hear from the Saba the true meaning of what they had encountered. Saba explained that each of the marble stones represents the letter yud.
There is a mystical explanation of the verse, “I am first and I am last,”31 which is seen in the aleph with the yud at the beginning and the yud at the end. The upper yud is the yud of the Tetragrammaton (Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei) while the lower yud is the yud of the Name Alef-Dalet-Nun-Yud.
The yuds can also be seen as the “female waters” (Mayin Nukvin) and “male waters” (Mayin Dechurin). The upper called “female waters” because they receive from below, from the performance of the mitzvot (commandments), which is the way in which we can affect the higher worlds so that the light will shine forth and become clothed in them.
The top and the bottom yuds of the aleph are a visual representation of or yashar (the light from above to below) and or chozer (the light from below to above).
When the Talmud writes “pure marble stones,” it’s referring to the two yuds, each stone being a yud. It’s taught that it is called “marble” because pure marble signifies the radiance of God’s awesome light, which in this physical world resembles the glistening of water.
The two yuds are referred to as marble and become one. We see this by way of tzeiruf (the tradition of letter combinations and permutations). The first sefira of Chochmah/Wisdom is called yesh – “being” spelled Yud-Shin (יש) in Hebrew. The lower Chochmah (i.e., Malchut/Sovereignty) is called shai, Shin-Yud (שי), which is the identical letters, but in reverse order. When both words are combined, they form the word shayish, Shin-Yud-Shin (שיש), which means marble.
The yud is Chochmah, the source, and the shin is seen as branching out into the sefirot according to the mystical understanding of or yashar (the light from above to below), and Malchut is called shai (שי) as in the light that reverses (or chozer). When these two words which represent the or yashar and or chozer are combined, they form the word shayish (שיש – the two yuds combine into one).
Coming back to the letter Aleph, it is the diagonal vav that is between the upper and lower yuds that join them. The design of the vav looks like a hook, and in Hebrew the word vav actually means “hook,” or connection – a hook is something that holds two things together.
Rabbi Akiva warned his disciples that when they behold the Light’s radiance, they shouldn’t mistake it for an impassable barrier to perceiving Godliness. However, he had also warned them not to reach past the perceptions that were beyond their abilities to comprehend and grasp. Ben Azai and Ben Zoma gazed beyond their capabilities. Ben Azai died, while Ben Zoma was stricken and some say died shortly after, while Acher, a great scholar, misinterpreted the vision of God and His ministering angels and lost his faith, becoming a heretic. The phrase above and in the Talmud of “cutting the plantings” describes Acher’s cutting down the trees in the Orchard. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to enter and exit in peace.
That is why in the Pardes (the Orchard), Rabbi Akiva warned them not to say that those two marble stones were separated from one another, since there in the Pardes, that is not true. It’s quite the opposite: it is the firmament between them that actually unites them and, through it, they are joined together, since the waters of the marble stones are completely pure. And as we learn, there is no separation other than in a place of spiritual impurity, as it is written, “to separate between the impure and the pure.”32 So for this reason, Rabbi Akiva stressed that in a place of purity, “do not say, ‘water, water.” This, too, is what the Saba was explaining, “Here there is no spiritual impurity… they are from the aspect of the Tree of Life…” These waters are in Atzilut (literally “the World of Emanation,” which kabbalistically is also the highest of four worlds in which exists the Kabbalistic Tree of Life), and therefore there is no separation between them. On the contrary, the firmament unites them. Just like with the letter Aleph, the vav unites the upper and lower yuds.
Divine Wisdom and the Mind’s Eye
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov learns from this tale that a person who attaches himself to God, creating a dwelling in this world, so that their thoughts roam freely from one chamber to the next, as they reach the higher chambers of Divine wisdom with the mind’s eye, they need to avoid speaking falsely, even by mistake.
Last week, we covered that to merit the revelation, each person must first awaken our own love and fear– this is “arousal from below.” It is our spiritual task manifested through our offerings and the meticulous way in which we build the Mishkan (and our inner temples). The idea also plays out in hashgacha, Divine Providence, and hashgachah pratit, G-d’s direct personal supervision. This is when one see’s Hashem’s ongoing active participation in one’s life, the “arousal from above.” This is when a person sees, as Ramban explains, Hashem choosing to reveal Himself to man. What each person does with that is up to them, but when a person chooses to receive that revelation and offers it back up in generosity, then we fully understand what the Rambam and the Rebbe explained in last week’s Dvar in relation to a “dwelling for G‑d”– man serves Hashem and creates a dwelling for His revelation within himself.
And this concept of an “arousal from above” and an “arousal from below” mirrors the or yashar (the light from above to below) and or chozer (the light from below to above). It is this mastering of our relationship to the Source of all, Hashem, that we need to continuously perfect, reaching higher states of unification. We have to try to see the truth and the good in all things and to judge favorably as much as we can. To do this we have to be grounded and content and work on nullifying our ego in order to find inner peace so that we can then see that mirrored in others. Perfecting the relationship we have with ourselves and our Creator will spill into positive relationships with Hashem’s creations.
This unification and connectedness is practiced in so many ways through the mitzvot and brachot (blessings). Both clothing and food were affected by the sin in the Garden of Eden – our having to toil for our bread and our awareness of our nakedness and the clothing we wear to hide it. Our post-Edenic state puts physicality and the need to work for our food as one of our difficulties. But we must know that we are meant to spiritualize the material. This, in itself, is a form of teshuva (coming from the word ‘return’). It is not just we who return to Hashem, but, through our acts, we have the ability to return all that He has given us in this world back to a higher place, back to the Source.
I’m remembering a pasuk in Parashat Eikev, in which Hashem says, “Take care lest you forget Hashem by not observing the mitzvot” and warns against being lost in the accumulation of possessions to the point that your “heart turns haughty, and you forget Hashem, who took [each of us] out of Egypt from the house of slaves,” thinking in your heart, “My strength and the might of my hand made me this wealthy.”33 That is the battle in the physical world, between a state of Exile and a state of Redemption, between connectedness and a feeling of disconnect. It is the battle to get to a state of not seeing or speaking falsity.
The Yalkut Yosef quoting Orot HaMitzvah explains the purpose of brachot, particularly birkat hamazon (the blessing after meals): to keep us mindful of Hashem’s ever-present hashgacha. The next verse says, “Lest you eat and be full… and your heart will be haughty, and you will forget Hashem, your God.”34 It is in man’s nature, once full, to forget who is the Provider of all. Maybe we worked for, acquired, and cooked the food, but we can’t ever forget who is the Provider of all providers, from whom everything emanates and is created. We read here that we need to remove the thought that it all comes from our own efforts, because that is when ego manifests and holiness grows more distant. In order to ensure this not to be the case, we are commanded to bless Hashem and proclaim our love of Hashem, as it’s written, “For all is from You, and what we have given You [came] from Your hand.”35
The space that we crave and the verse that comes to mind, which I love from Malachi is, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”36
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Notes & Sources
- Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmot, p. 615
- Tanya ch.36
- Exodus 40:12, 13
- Talmud Yevamot 47b
- Ibid 22a
- Leviticus 11:44
- Talmud Brachot 55a & Malbim on Genesis 2:10
- ‘Waters of Eden’ by Aryeh Kaplan p. 321, 345
- Amos 4:12
- Mishnah Yoma 30a
- Igrot Kodesh, vol. 11, p. 400-1
- Exodus 15:23
- Isaiah 55:1
- Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 82a
- Yalkut Shimoni 1:3
- Exodus 26:7
- Talmud Chulin 89a
- Likutei Halachot by Reb Natan 1:1
- ‘Waters of Eden’ by Aryeh Kaplan p. 321
- The Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Exodus, p. 424
- Exodus 40:34
- Ibid 40:38
- Chagiga 14b
- Zohar I, 26b and Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 40
- Psalms 101:7
- Ibid 116:15
- Proverbs 25:16
- Genesis 1:6
- Ibid 3:22
- Genesis 1:6
- Isaiah 44:6
- Leviticus 11:47
- Deuteronomy 8:11-17
- Ibid 8:12-14
- Divrei HaYamim 29:14
- Malakhi 3:7