The imagery of Elul, the month we recently entered, is often associated with a King. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains through a famous parable that the King, who is usually high up and away from His subjects (i.e. God) is, “in the field.” As in, He’s close to and among us, available for us to beseech Him, return to Him, and make amends for getting off track over the course of the last year.
Other well-known Elul imagery is about the love of a husband and wife. The first letters of the words of the verse, “אני לדודי ודודי לי ” (Shir HaShirim 6:3) “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” spell out the word אלול — Elul. This is more of a symmetrical and romantic love between God and us, His beloved. By rekindling this relationship, we are meant to discover the passion we once had and bring it forth anew, for the coming year.
But there is another less-known Elul relationship dynamic – perhaps the most powerful and compelling one of all – the maternal one. Hasidic master, the B’nai Yissaschar, discusses how Elul is related to mikvah and rebirth. He writes that, “Just as a mikvah (a ritual bath) purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One Blessed Be He, purifies Israel.” While any source of “living waters” – a river or a stream – constitutes a kosher mivkah, if a mikvah is enclosed, it must contain at least 40 se’os of water. The B’nai Yissaschar compares the 40 se’os of water in a kosher mikvah to the 40 days of the month of Elul plus the Eseres Ymei Teshuva, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time we find ourselves in now — often referred to as the Days of Awe — can be seen as a mikvah in time.
Now the purifying analogy is very clear. Teshuva (repentance) purifies us, just as mikvah purifies us, but I believe there are more parallels we can find between this time of year and mikvah. A word closely related to mikvah is “tikvah,” hope. God is called “Tikvah Yisrael,” the Hope of Israel. What does hope have to do with mikvah and the Days of Awe?
As I discovered when we made our mikvah video years ago, the cycle of mikvah use between a husband and wife (and now let’s add the cycle of teshuva between man and God) means that even when a relationship gets off kilter, gets out of whack, there is always the chance for the reset, for the fresh start. What could be more hopeful than knowing that no matter how far away we get, we can start anew? That we are never too far gone to be restored to better times? That’s another layer of mikvah meaning for this time of year. But I recently thought of an additional one.
If you read the pages of this site regularly, you’ll know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how a unifying theme that we’ve seen with our Makom members (disenfranchised charedim looking for a positive connection to Judaism) is lack of secure attachment due to childhood emotional neglect.
An incredible way to heal these attachment wounds that we’ve discovered is through the Good Mother Messages found in psychologist Jasmin Lee Cori’s, “The Emotionally Absent Mother” book. Cori writes not only about the messages kids need to hear and experience to develop secure attachment as they grow up. She also writes about the Spiritual Mother. While Cori cites Mother Nature and Mother Mary (she’s not Jewish), she’s not aware of the Jewish imagery of Spiritual Mother associated with the Shechina, the Sukkah, and the mikvah.
The mikvah is a womb like state – it is warm water that we immerse in, that surrounds us and protects us. I would suggest that mikvah is not only “hope” due to the promise of a fresh start. Mikvah is also hope because when we are securely attached, we view life with optimism. The world is our kosher oyster. The possibilities of the new year excite us, they don’t intimidate us. We made mistakes this past year, but it’s OK, being surrounded and protected by love and warmth give us confidence that we’ll be able to right our wrongs in the coming year.
But what if you didn’t get secure attachment growing up? The good news is that not only is it not too late, you can get these Good Mother Messages from God, as all of them are contained throughout Jewish sources, which you can read about here.
What this means is that God not only acts as a purifier and a source of hope because we can always reset, the Shechina/mikvah side of God through the words of Torah can become our security, our anchor and our refuge to fortify ourselves with as we prepare to be reborn in the coming year.