Mikvah – Waters of Hope, Waters of Renewal (a shared blog by Rabbi Sharon Sobel and Cindy Morris)

Rabbi Sobel’s Story:

It was a beautiful day for a ferry ride on the Long Island Sound. The sun was shining. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air was crisp and cold. The sunlight glistened and bounced off the water in golden hues. The gentle calm of the water was soothing to the soul.

Cindy, one of my congregants, and I were taking the ferry so I could bring her to the mikvah.  She had approached me looking for a spiritual way to acknowledge her recent divorce. After some reflection, I suggested immersion in the mikvah. (The mikvah is a ritual bath. For more information about mikvah, click here: Mayyim Hayyim)

Our first experience in life is surrounded by the nurturing waters of our mother’s womb. Those waters envelop us, nourish us, sustain us before we enter this world pure and innocent.

Throughout Jewish tradition, water has always been viewed as a life-giving force, as a source of renewal and purification. In Biblical times, water was used to welcome guests who traveled from afar into one’s home (the tradition was to have the host wash the dust of the road off the guests’ feet). Water was used to refresh and renew.

Rituals can be transformative. They enable us to separate from what existed before, mark a boundary and help make an emotional, inner transformation to a changed status.

Think of the importance of a wedding ritual, or a funeral, or a baby’s brit milah.

As Cindy and I sat on the ferry crossing the Long Island Sound to go to the mikvah, I realized that crossing the water symbolized the emotional journey Cindy was taking: she was leaving her emotional baggage from her marriage on the shores behind her. She was crossing to a new frontier, full of hope and potential.

When we arrived at the mikvah, Cindy went into the luxurious changing room to get herself ready and I prepared the mikvah room:

Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength
Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength

Unbeknown to Cindy, I created a havdalah ceremony, a ceremony of distinction, of separation, to begin the experience, prior to her stepping into the “living waters.”

When Cindy came out in her robe, I softly sang:

Ozi, v’zimrat Yah, va’yi li, li-y’shua-Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah
Ozi v'Zimrat Yah Hebrew text
My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation (Psalm 118:14, Exodus 15:2)

I used the Havdalah symbols: wine, spices and fire to represent the transition that Cindy was marking. I spoke of finding a new-found sense of of strength and purpose, joy and peace. We asked God for a life filled with compassion and understanding.

I wanted Cindy to be able to smell sweetness in life once again, to go forward from this moment on with renewed hope for herself, for her boys and for the bright future that was before her.

(Click here for: Rabbi Sharon Sobel’s Havdalah Ceremony at Mikvah to Mark Finalization of Divorce)

And when we completed Havdalah,  Cindy silently entered the mikvah, the waters of transformation, hope and renewal. She emerged with a new-found sense of peace and strength. (The ceremony used for the immersion was by: Mayyim Hayyim, “After Finalizing a Divorce”)

And when it was all done, we took the ferry back across the Sound, sailing to a new shore of promise and possibility.

Cindy Morris’ Story

When I first approached Rabbi Sobel about needing to feel God’s blessing for my divorce, I realized that sounded a little crazy. Who blesses a divorce? However, I felt like my marriage had been blessed by God, that it was not a waste, and that my life was better for it. But I also wanted to ask God to bless my future without my marriage. I wanted to acknowledge to myself that my life without my ex-husband was one full of possibility and light.

All I could think throughout every mediation was that this was the man who had veiled me, stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with me, and who I called my b’sheret (soul-mate). This was the man who I married with God’s blessings.

But when we signed the documents that ended our marriage, we weren’t even in the same room. It felt dirty and shameful, like we were hiding from one another and from all the people who celebrated our lives with us. The same God who we invited into our wedding, our children’t brises, our holiday celebrations and our daily lives, was very obviously not invited into our divorce proceedings.

When Rabbi Sobel suggested that I go to the mikvah with her for a ceremony of transition, my first thought was about being naked. I had never been to a mikvah before, and it felt overwhelming and intrusive. However, when I thought about it, being naked was important. For years, I had built up walls and shields to protect myself, refusing my right to be vulnerable again, to risk pain. I was refusing to open myself up to the possibilities of my life because I felt a need to protect myself. If I were going to live a full life, I had to find a way to risk that vulnerability again, and that moment in the mikvah, naked, was as vulnerable as I could get.

As I sat in the candlelit room, in front of the water, Rabbi Sobel performed a Havdalah ceremony that didn’t acknowledge going from the holy to the unholy, but instead talked of my transition. It talked of strength, courage, and passion. It spoke of finding my life’s path as a mother, a woman and a person. And then, I silently entered the pool and dipped three times.

I know that my life is blessed, and that whatever my future holds is mine. Some will be good; some will not. My divorce taught me about me, perhaps more so than my marriage ever did. Stepping from the waters, we sang the Shehechiyanu together, acknowledging that moment was a moment of gratitude and a moment of uniqueness.

And then I was in the changing room, so aptly named. I slipped on my skirt and blouse. I brushed my hair. I put on my shoes, and I went out to the world again.

Never Give Up – Reflections on the Israeli Elections

Yesterday, I awoke to find my Israeli friends expressing a sense of despair, anguish and sadness at the result of the Israeli elections.

One wrote that she wasn’t sure how she could find the strength to get out of bed to continue the [excellent] work she does in her position as director of an interfaith organization. She works with people of all faiths on a daily basis to build bridges toward peace, dialogue and understanding. She strives to develop an Israeli society where all peoples can live with dignity and in harmony. Yesterday was a difficult day for her.

Friends were greatly saddened by the racism that pervaded the election campaign. They were grievously disturbed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s choice to rally his supporters on election day by creating an atmosphere of fear over the participation of Israeli Arabs in the elections, rather than celebrating democracy at its best.

I am not going to do an analysis of the elections – there are enough political pundits, armchair critics and others who are already doing that.

But I can talk about “hope.” So many of us love the land and people of Israel and wonder if there can ever be hope for the future in that region.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was on a long car ride. And I happened to be driving for 45 minutes on a highway behind a car whose license plate read: NEVRGVEUP

Never give up.

Never give up…hope for peace.

Never give up..hope for the future.

Never give up..hope that justice will ultimately prevail.

One of my friends, Cantor Evan Kent, who now lives in Israel full-time wrote: “in spite of the elections, I am proud to remain an irrational optimist. The philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr informs my work and life. MLK said: ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice..’.”

Evan – and so many of us – will not give up hope that justice and peace WILL ultimately prevail in Israel. It will be a long, slow and sometimes painful road.

As Anat Hoffman (Executive Director for the Israeli Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center) said, “We will find ways to be effective and successful despite a very challenging reality. Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time to fight even more determinedly for the future.”

So, too, WE must not give up hope. We must use our voices, our actions, our words and deeds to speak up for justice and peace.

We must educate ourselves about the critical issues, we must remain united in our commitment to Israel’s security and do our part to make justice prevail and hope a reality.

One way we can impact Israel is to Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress. If you have not already voted, you can vote by clicking on this link here:

Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress

For some additional understanding about the elections, here is a wonderful blog, by Israeli Reform Rabbi Stacy Blank:

A Modest Post-Election Perspective

For the Reform Movement’s Response to the Elections, click on this link:

Reform Movement Leaders React to the Elections in Israel

As we are taught: “As long as there is life, there is hope.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9:1)

Esther vs a Hamantashen: What Would You Rather Be on Purim?

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen (a three-cornered triangular cookie, filled with jam or some other sweet filling) for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

She would cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style. She would also make a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, tied around my neck with a string.

An example of a hamantaschen costume!
An example of a hamantaschen costume!

As Purim approached, I dreaded getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume. I hated it! I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway? Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther. For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives. Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic! I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine. Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes. The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.

We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers. Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate. If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Because the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and since we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.

Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman. And, she is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her! Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls. Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people. This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit. And because God’s spirit was with her, the rabbis say, all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure. They attribute to her great courage and authority. They portray her not only as the savior of the Jewish people, but also as an halachic authority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure. The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine. For the actual text of the Book of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner. It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is andocentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine. It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children. It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models who exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did: we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.

We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti. Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself. Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.

Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!