Metzora: Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora

We’re reading the parsha called Metzora, which
is mostly about skin lesions (not “leprosy” as per the older
translations) and the resulting ritual impurity- which, in Biblical
times, would have kept a person with such problems outside various
sacred or regular areas, depending on exactly what’s going on. Persons
with certain kinds of scaly patches- called “tzara’at”- had to shave
and be purified in water before returning to the camp:

“On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard,
and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his
clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. . . . ”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 14:9)

This verse, which prescribes water as the ritual of renewal and
spiritual healing, is one of the sources from which we derive the
practice of mikvah, or ritual bath. A mikvah must be “living water,”
which means river water, melted ice, ocean or lake water, or
rainwater, as opposed to “drawn water,” which is well water or tap
water. Most modern mikvaot (plural) have the minimum requirement of
“living water” in one collection area which joins a drainable tub
which is filled with regular water- when the two meet through removing
a plug, it’s as if the entire amount of both pools is “living water.”

In post-Biblical Judaism, when the idea of ritual impurity is no
longer operable, the two main uses of mikvah have been for conversion
and the practice of “taharat hamishpacha,” or “family purity,” meaning
the refraining from marital relations during and after a woman’s
menstrual cycle, until such a time as she immerses in a mikvah. (Cf.
Vayikra 12 and 15.)

A sofer, or scribe, also immerses prior to writing the letters of a
Torah scroll. some Jewish men go before Shabbat, or before the Days of
Awe, or even daily, in the spirit of the laws governing bodily purity.
One commentator (Sefer HaHinnuch) points out that mikvah is not like
other positive commandments, in that one only has to go to a mikvah if
one wishes to be immersed and renewed. That is, the commandment is
not: you must go to a mikvah, but rather says, if you wish to rejoin
the camp, as it were, mikvah is the way to do it.

Books, articles, poems and sermons have been written on the symbolism
of mikvah, and these are widely available on the internet and any
Jewish bookstore. For today, we will merely note that Judaism is far
from the only religion which uses water as a powerful symbol of
renewal and rebirth: think of Hindus and the Ganges or Muslims washing
before prayer, for example. I believe that sacred water is a spiritual
archetype, a deep symbol of the possibility of a renewed spirit, of
forgiveness and rebirth. As such, mikvah is a practice that is open to
all Jews- not only for the practice of family purity or conversion but
as a place where our thoughts can be made new and our souls oriented
towards the deepest connections with God and all life.

Shabbat Shalom,


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