By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
At times, a news item surfaces that dominates the headlines and evokes feelings of shock, confusion, anger, and even depression. While there may be justification for some, if not all, of these emotions, we cannot allow it to change our perspective. Jewish secular media and various blogs (this does not include the blogs that exist only to mock and tear down everything and anything connected to Torah values) featured this story, with text such as, “Mikvehs will never be held with the same respect as they were before this,” or, “bridge over troubled waters,” etc. This type of headline catches our attention, but it should not allow us to lose focus of the most important aspect of the mikveh—its inherent kedushah.
Stories like these, which unfortunately happen too often, should reinforce to us the frailties of the human spirit and help us recognize that the community needs to have a system of checks and balances in place at all times. These stories should never alter, even slightly, our collective reverence and appreciation of the one place that is the source of so much kedushah for Klal Yisrael. Not a month goes by without the discovery of ancient mikva’os that were the source of kedushah and foundation of every Jewish family and community from the beginning of time, whether in Eretz Yisrael or around the world. Who hasn’t visited the ancient mikva’os in Massada, underneath the Kotel walls, in Beit She’an, and countless other places?
After the colossal destruction of European Jewry in WWII, the broken and shattered survivors arrived at these shores to rebuild their lives, their families, and their communities. The late rav and founder of the Breuer’s community in Washington Heights called for a meeting of the few survivors of the once strong and vibrant community in Frankfurt, Germany to discuss the plans to rebuild their community from the ashes. There was much discussion regarding what to focus on first—a communal shul, a cheder for the children, a Bais Yaakov, etc. Rav Breuer asked for the floor and said, “The first thing we must do is build a mikveh, for without kedushas Yisrael, we have nothing and we have no future.”
What is a mikveh? The midrash in Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer (chapter 20) explains the source of the kedushah of a mikveh. (There are different variations of this midrash in other places as well, including in the Zohar). In parashas Bereishis, a few pesukim describe the various rivers of the world. The midrash explains that Hakadosh Baruch Hu caused all the waters of the world to be connected to the river that flowed from Gan Eden. When Adam sinned and was banished from Gan Eden, he immediately did teshuvah. However, he longed for the kedushah and sanctity of Gan Eden; he went and sat in the river to feel that connection to Gan Eden, for all the natural waters had their shoresh (their source) from the waters of Gan Eden. The Ari, zt’l, explained that this is the secret of the power of immersing in a mikveh. When people go into the mikveh, they are reestablishing themselves with man’s perfected state “kodem ha’cheit,” before the sin, by immersing in waters that have a connection to the waters of Gan Eden. That is why only natural water is permitted for a mikveh, because that is the connection to the waters of Gan Eden.
In the parashah that describes Avraham Avinu welcoming his three guests, whom he thought were idol-worshippers, we learn that he washed their feet with water to remove the tumah of avodah zarah from them. How does washing one’s feet accomplish that? Again the midrash explains that Avraham used water from a natural river whose source is from Gan Eden and therefore has the power to remove all forms of tumah, which could not exist in the perfect state of kedushah in Gan Eden.
So, if we established that the source of the power of the kedushah of the mikveh stems from Gan Eden, how is it possible that it can also be the source of such depravity and sin as featured in the explosive headlines of late? I believe the answer to this can be found in another midrash as well.
The midrash in Yalkut Shemoni in Bereishis tells us that after Adam was exiled from Gan Eden, he was inconsolable at the loss of such a perfect existence before the sin. Hakadosh Baruch Hu saw his sincerity in doing teshuvah, so He broke off a branch from a tree from Gan Eden and threw it to Adam so he could feel connected to that very special place he longed for. The midrash asks what happened to the branch of Gan Eden that Adam was given and answers that a piece of the branch was used by Noach after the Mabul to plant his kerem, vineyard, which he planted immediately after leaving the Teivah. (This explains why it miraculously gave grapes on the very same day he planted it, according to one opinion, because it was from that branch from Gan Eden.) Another piece of the branch was used later by Avraham Avinu to plant the aishel Avraham that he used to provide shade for his three guests.
My good friend Rabbi Mordechai Kaminetsky shared with me the beautiful insight on this midrash that he heard from his rebbe, HaRav Shneur Kotler, zt’l, who spoke about this at his talmid’s sheva berachos in Lakewood. (I subsequently found the same idea in Rav Schwab’s sefer and in Rav Dessler’s writings, but I first heard it from Reb Mordechai). Rav Shneur asked how it was possible for the very same branch to be used for two diametrically opposite purposes: Noach used the branch from Gan Eden to plant a vineyard wherein the Torah testifies that he got drunk and was violated by his son Cham, who was therefore cursed for eternity. And Avraham used the branch to plant his famous aishel Avraham, which was intended to protect his distinguished guests from the scorching sun and was subsequently used for the wood for the Mishkan and klei HaMishkan. Rav Shneur explained that this is the very nature of man himself. He has the ability to take something as pure and pristine as possible—from Gan Eden!—and use it for the ultimate kedushah, or, in contrast, for the most base, immoral conduct possible.
I want to suggest that the same idea can be used for the mikveh as well. We established earlier that, according to the midrash, the source of the powerful kedushah that can only come from a mikveh stems from the fact that its source comes from the waters of Gan Eden itself. Hence immersion in a mikveh can transform tumah to taharah, can turn a non-Jew into a Jew, and, in times of the Beis HaMikdash, allows a Kohen Gadol who is tamei to enter into the Kodesh HaKedashim on Yom Kippur in the holiest state that a human can achieve in this temporal world. That is the awesome koach and kedushah of the mikveh. At the same time, this piece of Gan Eden can be used as a vehicle to degrade, debase, and disgrace the very source of such kedushah in this world.
The title of this article reads, “Sullied Waters,” however, in truth, no one can ever defile the holy waters of a mikveh. Man can become sullied, but a mikveh remains pure.
By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg