Shmuel Reichman

Imagine you wake up in a hospital bed with amnesia, and you haven't the foggiest clue who you are. You try to recall your most recent memory and how you got here, but you can't seem to remember. After a few seconds, you come to realize that you have no idea who you are. Suddenly, a few men enter the room and give you some shocking news. They tell you that you are the president of the United States, and that once you're feeling better, they have some very important issues that you have to deal with. How would you feel? You'd probably hold your head pretty high, realizing that you are someone important. However, what if instead of addressing you as the president of the United States, those same people informed you that you were the hospital janitor; instead of awaiting your return to the oval office, they're awaiting your return to the bathrooms on the second floor. How would you feel then? How would you think of yourself?

 

The Spiritual Concept of Water

A central question in the story of Noach is why Hashem specifically chose to destroy the world with a flood. Hashem could have chosen any form of destruction, and yet, He chose water. We naturally associate the story of Noach with the mabul (the Great Flood) and the teivah (ark), but couldn't there have been another form of this story? What is the significance of water?

The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, an important Talmudic scholar of the 16th century from Prague) explains that the fundamental nature of water is that it is formless. Water has no form of its own, rather it takes on the shape of its container. (It is pure chomer—matter, without any tzurah—form.) The ocean is completely shapeless, and unlike dry land which has paved paths, it has no pathways or landmarks. This characteristic of water is indicative of its essence. Water represents the initial stage in every creative process. Before something becomes expressed and takes on form, it remains in a formless and amorphous state. Through the creative process, physical form emerges from this amorphous beginning. This is why the Torah states that during the original creation of the world, there was initially only water. Only afterwards did dry land emerge from the water.

 

Destroying or Recreating?

This is the deep idea behind the mabul: Hashem was not destroying the world, He was recreating it. The Dor Ha'Mabul—the world from Adam to Noach—became so corrupted that Hashem decided to start over again with Noach alone. Hashem therefore immersed the world in water, so that it could go back into its primordial state of formlessness and void. Only once it went back into its original state could the dry land emerge once again from the waters, recreated. Only once the dry land emerged, and the world was birthed once more, did Noach leave the teivah.

 

Personal Creation

This is also the deeper reason why each of us is surrounded by amniotic fluids when we are in our mother's womb. Just as the creation of the physical world emerged from formless water, so too, each of us have our own creation story, and therefore emerge from our own waters. Our birth is like the birth of a new world (Sanhedrin 37a). When we are in our mother's womb, the malach (angel) teaches us kol ha'Torah kulah—the whole Torah—(Niddah 30b). As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that is beyond this world, a Torah that is beyond the confines of shape and time. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you understood every aspect of it clearly. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you were also learning your specific share of Torah—you were being shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world, emerging from these formless waters, with the mission to give form to everything you were shown in the womb, in your primordial and perfected state.

 

National Creation

A further proof to this principle is the fact that Klal Yisrael had to enter the sea when leaving Egypt. The commentaries point out that this journey through the sea appears to be pointless. After all, the Midrash explains that Klal Yisrael exited on the very same side that they entered! If Hashem simply wanted to destroy the Egyptians, there were plenty of far easier ways to accomplish this. What was the purpose of such a journey? The Maharal explains that Exodus from Egypt was the creation and birth of the Jewish People. Thus, just as the creation and the recreation of the world emerged from water, the Jewish People had to be born from water as well. They therefore entered the water and emerged reborn. As the midrash explains, the splitting of the sea was like a pregnant woman's water breaking. They entered as individuals, but emerged reborn as a nation. The entire world, the Jewish nation, and every single individual person has a creation story of emerging from formless water into concrete existence.

 

Mikvah: Personal Re-Creation

This also sheds light onto the unique mitzvah of entering the mikvah. When you immerse yourself in the water, you're going back to a pure and formless state; the original state of perfection you possessed back in your mother's womb. You are going back to your root, your higher self, your original source. In doing so, you "wash" off your spiritual impurity, reattaching yourself to your pure and root self. When you emerge, you emerge reborn, recreated, as if taking on form and shape for the first time. It is like the dry land emerging from the primordial waters. 

This understanding sheds light on the many unique times that the mitzvah of Mikvah is mandated. A Jewish convert must immerse him- or herself in the waters of a Mikvah as the final step in the conversion process. This is because a Jewish convert is considered to be born anew (“ger k'nolad dami”). The convert immerses in the mikvah, the medium of recreation, and emerges reborn. He entered as an old version of himself, and emerges anew - reborn, ready for a new way of life. 

Recreating Our Identity

We don't need to have amnesia to recreate our identity. Every day, we get to choose who we are, what we believe in, and how we are going to live our lives. Each morning we get to create our identity. We don't have to continue making the same mistakes again and again. Each day, we can restart anew. As Avraham said, "anochi afar v’efer"- I am but dirt and ashes. This is generally understood as a statement of extreme humility. However, there is a fundamentally deeper explanation of this statement as well. Ashes represent an elemental breakdown, the most basic particles of an object. Dirt is the starting point of growth, the place where seeds are planted and given life. In a deeper sense, Avraham was saying that every day he would "ash" himself, breaking his very self down into his elemental and root form, and then plant himself anew. In other words, Avraham would recreate himself every single day. Each and every day, he looked deep within himself, broke every aspect down, and recreated himself for the better, taking his life to the next level of spiritual growth. Avraham never continued living the same way he had before simply because it was comfortable, or he was used to it. Avraham challenged himself daily, breaking himself down, constantly pushing himself to become the very best he could be. May we all be inspired to embark on a journey of genuine "afar vi'efer", finding excitement and meaning in our constant growth and internal recreation.

Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker and has spoken internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email inspiration@americanisraelite.com.

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