What is it about a cool spring rain, a dip in the pool on a 100 plus degree summer day in Texas, or even a good long cry when the emotion has been pent up inside? Water not only maintains life, it also renews life, and our connection to this elemental force has grown continuously deeper since the beginning of the earth.
In Bereshit (Genesis) 1:2 we learn that God fashions the earth out of the waters, and it emerges as a new entity. Then when God wants to start over and refresh the world and creation in parshat Noah, again God uses water, a great flood like a bath over the land so that the earth and its inhabitants can start anew. It should come as no surprise that the symbolism of water is that of renewal and rebirth. Not only was the earth birthed out of water, but each of us emerged at one point from the watery environment of the womb.
Today we use water as a symbol during the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we symbolically wash away our sins duringTashlich. We ritually wash our hands before we eat so as to make eating a holy act. Even outside of ritual we use water. On a hot day when the heat feels particularly heavy we’ll take a cold shower or jump in the pool to emerge refreshed and renewed. Something even as simple as our daily shower or bath can awaken our senses and get us ready for a new day.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the powers of water in the use of the mikvah, the ritual bath. Many women will use the mikvah to mark a new monthly cycle in their lives. Men and women will commonly go to the mikvah before their wedding day or before Yom Kippur, so as to emerge into this new year or phase in life clean and purified.
Our parshah this week, Metzora, goes into detail about the use of the mikvah as a tool for renewal in our daily lives. The immersion that the text speaks of is for the metzorah, the leprous person, to emerge from the waters with a renewed outlook on life. Sefer Ha-Hinnuch, a 13th century commentary on the mitzvot of the Torah, teaches that an experience of illness and recovery is such that it allows the person who has survived to come out renewed and a new person.
There is an age-old debate about whether or not people are able to change, nature versus nurture. But in all likelihood, our human personalities are formed in many ways from many sources. Perhaps our nature is set when we’re born, but we emerge out of every experience changed and ready to engage with the world. The text teaches us that while we might not be the best swimmers, each of us is able to float. When we’re struggling to move forward, perhaps the only thing holding us back is our fear of diving in to the next step. If life presents an opportunity for renewal, may we have the courage the take the plunge.
Family Discussion Questions
1. What are some other ways besides using water that we symbolize rebirth or renewal in Judaism? How does this connect you to living a Jewish life as described in our “ethical covenant”?
2. What is your favorite type of natural water? Why? How does it make you feel?