Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Mikveh of Elul

This is a piece of a much more involved Chasidic teaching by the B'nai Yissachar, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), that I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg through his Moadim L'Simcha class at Aleph and that I shared at the Selichot Service at Congregation Ner Shalom on September 5, 2015. Thank you to Cynthia Calmenson for insisting I post it.

If we think of all of the ways in which we've missed the mark; the longings that have gone astray; the hurts we've inflicted and the hurts we've absorbed; we see that it all comes from the fact of our lives in this physical world. We were once, the mystics would say, part of a great infinity that is God, the Eyn Sof. We mostly can't remember it. Because when we are born, we become subject to the needs of our bodies - the hungers, the longings, the frailties that drive us. We fall under the illusion that we are all separate from each other. And that we are separate from God. And cut loose like that, we wander through our lives, trying to do the best we can, but getting bruised and bruising others and ourselves all along the way.

This is the time of year when we do teshuvah, when we try to return. So, is there any way to return to the Oneness that we once experienced, the endlessness of God that we were part of? Can we let go, even briefly, of the separateness that is often the source of adventure and delight, but that also can cause us so much loneliness and pain?

There is recipe for dissolving. It is, as any cook can tell you: mix with water. When we immerse ourselves in the mikveh, we dissolve back into a greater Oneness.

But how much water do you need? Too little, and you end up with something lumpy, and that's not what we're looking for. Talmud tells us that a mikveh must have 960 lugin of living water in it. We no longer know exactly how much a log is. But the B'nai Yissachar, a student of the great Seer of Lublin, gives us some mathematics to explain why 960. So now we're going to do some math.

The first piece of the math is this. Talmud tells us that one part in 60 is the proper proportion for something to become nullified. If a drop of milk falls in the meat soup, it lets go of its nature and becomes one with the soup - and kosher! - as long as the soup is at least 60 times the volume of the drop of milk. Sixty-to-one is the ratio of bitul. Of nullification. Of dissolving. Of transforming.

Meanwhile our bodies, our physical human natures, that tug at us and pull us away from our Divine source are made up of 4 elements: fire, water, air and earth. But it's more subtle than that. If that were the full recipe for humanity, we'd be rather simple and rather similar. But we are all different from each other because in each of us the chemistry of elements is different. My fire-element is in itself made up of four elements: mostly of fire, but also some air and water and earth, in a combination that is unique to me. So each of us is made up of four elements, and those are each made up of four elements. And so, the B'nai Yissachar teaches, our earthly selves are composed of 16 elements of This-Worldliness. Those 16 elements are where we live our lives, and what keep us feeling separate.

So if we want, even for a moment, to dissolve back into Divinity, back to our Source, we need to dissolve each of those 16 elements. And by what ratio? Sixty-to-one, like the milk in the soup.

60 x 16 = 960

It takes 960 measures of living water in the mikveh to make our 16 earthy elements dissolve back into the infinite of God, to lose ourselves in the Divine soup.

But wait, there's more. The number 960 now becomes the number forever associated with the mikveh and our shot at re-absorption into God.

Why is that important? We are now in this special, tender period of teshuvah, of reflection and returning. It runs from the beginning of Elul through not just the end of the month, but onward 10 more days through Yom Kippur. A 40-day period of teshuvah. And of course every one of those days has 24 hours. Now wait for it:

40 days x 24 hours = 960

Bingo. The exact number that represents a mikveh.

And that, by the B'nai Issachar's reasoning, makes this period of time, the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe, a mikveh in time. We have 960 hours in which to immerse ourselves, in which to dissolve, in which to remember what it was like before we were born, when we were each other, when we were God.

We are 22 days in. We are in the center of the mikveh.

May we immerse; may we dissolve; and may we emerge renewed.

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