NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – There is a peculiar midrash on the story of Noah and the flood about a king who fills his palace with adoring subjects who can’t speak. They still manage to praise the king with hand gestures. The king thinks to himself, wow – if subjects who can’t speak can still display such devotion, imagine how much more love they would exhibit if they could speak? The king is shocked at how quickly the new “talking” subjects turn the tables on him. They don’t praise him at all, instead they declare the palace to be theirs, and announce that there isn’t even a king; they then proclaim themselves as kings. The old subjects are quickly reinstalled in the palace.
The jarring metaphor unfolds. The subjects, who lack speech, but praise nonetheless, are the oceans of the world at its earliest stage. The waters praise G-d, the king; roaring out their tribute with crashing waves. “Ahh,” says G-d, “If the waters, lacking any self-perception, can still manage to acknowledge me so intensely, then how much more meaningful the praise would be coming from beings, filled with a sense of self, equipped with the very same language used to form them in the first place. They would lyricize my existence with a whole new level of coherence.”
Though the metaphor doesn’t indicate any requirement of a shift on the part of the king, when introducing “talking” subjects, the old subjects are simply “replaced” – we do see that shift when it comes to the creation narrative. If G-d wants beings who can praise him from a place of self, he has to withdraw his all-encompassing presence and grant it to them. This forms the basis for the mystical idea of “Tzimtzum” – or the self concealment of G-d’s presence.
G-d is “shocked” at how quickly mankind turns the tables on him. They don’t praise him at all. To the contrary. The selfhood they have been granted as a result of the scaling back of the supreme source of “self,” fills them with the illusion of true separateness.
What does he do? He brings back the water! He “floods” out human consciousness, beings that are separate enough to praise, but not independent enough to rebel.
In the end though, he sees through his own divine machinations. The loneliness of G-d requires more than staged devotion. Knowing that he can’t have it both ways, and yet still desiring the thrill of true recognition, by a being that feels itself, he accepts the risk of rejection.
So he vows never to flood again. Still, he keeps the waters. In doing so he achieves both. He grants autonomy, but also provides a format that functions as a means to find deep connectedness, while maintaining enough distance for the perception of “otherness” to flourish, leaving the self intact.
If the contained waters of the ocean are G-d’s mindfulness place – the place where he strikes the right balance between distance and presence – then the mikvah is ours.
This sacred Jewish ritual has helped us locate that mental middle ground, that gray area between our sense of self and our connection to others, for thousands of years. The need for establishing these kinds of healthy boundaries, seems more pressing today than ever before. When we immerse, humbly and prayerfully, we get to experience the paradox of being and nonbeing. The mikvah is a holy space because that is where G-d’s promise is kept, and felt, even without seeing a rainbow. While, in keeping with Jewish law, the mikvah is filled with the same power of rainwaters as the original flood; the destructive tendencies are curbed, creating a space to be simultaneously lost and found. We submerge, momentarily letting go, letting ourselves slip into the blissful nothingness of primeval space, only to resurface with an enriched sense of being.
The mikvah facilitates the ultimate paradox of an “experienced selflessness.” By moderating the levels of letting go and holding on, a Mikvah moment manages to honor both our need for solitude and intimacy. In Kabbalah terminology, it would be the way that the infinite lights of Tohu somehow find a home in the finite vessels of Tikkun.
This same delicate dance of the original cosmic creation drama, gets re-enacted in the story of Hanukkah. While the desecration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent extinguishing of its powerful lights were tragic, it can also be understood as a Tzimtzum of the infinite beams of G-dly light, setting the stage for the modest, but no less miraculous, human light that we kindle in its aftermath!
Chag Sameach, and blessings of light and love!
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker is the director of Chabad of the North Shore.