03 September 2020
By Rabbi Adam Raskin
There are various memes circulating on social media about the year 2020 (a meme is a picture or an image, often humorous, that is adjusted to add a new or different connotation to the original). One of my favorite memes features Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd of “Back to the Future” fame, next to their souped-up DeLorean time machine exclaiming “Anywhere but 2020!” Indeed, if you substitute 5870 for 2020, the meme would be just as satirical. I don’t imagine that this year, whether 2020 or 5780, is one for which many people will be nostalgic. It has been a year of pain and loss for so many, whether the cause is a deadly virus or the scourge of racial injustice. The specter of death has hung over us for far too long.
Our ancestors, in their unwavering commitment to life, developed elaborate rituals to ward off death. One involves immersion in the mikveh, a pool of natural-flowing “living” waters, after coming into close contact with a corpse. A brush with death would render one “tamei,” ritually impure, and therefore unable to approach the Holy Temple or participate in its sacred offerings. Bathing in the mikveh’s lustral waters offered a way back into the community, cleansed of the contagion of death. I think, after this year, we could all use a dip in the mikveh! As this grim and somber year comes to a close, wouldn’t it be refreshing to slough off the dead cells of 5780 as we anticipate a much better 5781?
While I encourage the use of the mikveh for all kinds of purposes, both ancient and modern, there is another possibility. At the end of Tractate Yoma, the great Rabbi Akiva is quoted as saying “Praiseworthy is Israel. Before Whom are they purified? Their Heavenly Parent, for it says, ‘And I will sprinkle upon them pure waters, and they shall be purified,’ and it says, ‘“the mikveh of Israel is God,’ just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so does the Holy One of Blessing purify Israel.” In Rabbi Akiva’s imagery, God is actually the mikveh! On Yom Kippur we read from Leviticus 16:30, “Lifeni Hashem tit’haru,” before God you shall be purified. Through our teshuvah—our intense, heartfelt return—we enter the mikveh that is God’s own essence, and are cleansed of a year that has been far too laden with death. As we step out of that mikveh into 5781, may we feel purified, “tahor,” and ready to embrace the precious gift of life, health, and abundant blessings.
Rather than entering a new year devoid of hope or comfort, may we be reminded that our God, the Melekh Hafeitz Ba’Hayyim, the Sovereign Who delights in life, desires a life of fullness for us, for our families, for all Israel and all the world.