The Mikveh Monologues

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Vayehi ("Jacob lived...")
Genesis 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12

"Plan for this world as if you were to live forever;

Plan for the hereafter as if you were to die tomorrow."

-Solomon ibn Gabirol

I have gained a renewed appreciation for ibn Gabirol's wisdom thanks to several recent experiences in our community. Last week I traveled to San Diego to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). I was struck by the creativity, vitality and energy of some 6,000 attendees from North America and around the world. The biennial featured dozens of practical workshops for synagogue leaders, Torah seminars taught by leading scholars, plenary sessions with dynamic speakers and inspiring music, and uplifting worship services. There was a palpable "buzz" throughout the conclave--the sights and sounds of thoughtful, committed Jews learning, praying, and sharing together.

The vibrant, living Judaism I experienced at the URJ Biennial was a marked contrast to my "field trip" to view the Dead Seas Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The exhibit was outstanding, with a multi-media introduction to the scrolls' milieu highlighting by a virtual reality tour of the ancient Qumran community. From there visitors descend to a room with scrolls displayed in climate-controlled cases and subdued lighting designed to preserve the priceless documents.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit and the artifacts on loan from museums in Israel, Jordan and other parts of the world. The Dead Sea Scrolls remain a mystery and the subject of continued academic debate. Were the scrolls written in Jerusalem and deposited in the caves of Qumran? Were they written by the Essenes or others living in Qumran? Who were these people, and how did they fit (or not fit) into the labyrinth of Jewish and pre-Christian faith communities more than 2,000 years ago?

I emerged from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit with more questions than answers. I also left with the enduring image of people who lived a pietistic existence governed by demanding rules in a harsh and pristine environment. Their hearts and minds were focused on matters of purity and discipline, even as they anticipated the end of days and the coming messianic apocalypse. Matters of life and death were a daily reality for the people of Qumran and the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Viewing the scrolls was a fascinating prelude to this week's performance of "The Mikveh Monologues" here in Los Angeles. Mikva'ot, or ritual baths, have their origins in Jewish laws of ritual purity. Archeologists have unearthed ancient mikva'ot at Qumran, Massada and other sites. "The Mikveh Monologues" are based on the true contemporary stories of men, women and children who have immersed in Mayyim Hayyim ("Living Waters"), a beautiful community mikveh and educational center in suburban Boston.

Mayyim Hayyim and a proposed partner project here in Los Angeles share a mission to "bring mikveh" to a wide swath of the Jewish community, especially liberal Jews. The monologues speak of women who immerse in the mikveh each month in observance of the laws of family purity (taharat mishpachah). And they speak of individuals who immerse before Shabbat and holy days, or to celebrate a significant birthday or anniversary. I was moved by the poignant stories of men and women who immerse in the living, healing waters to mark the conclusion of chemotherapy or radiation treatments. I was touched by the emotional narratives of terminally-ill individuals for whom the mikveh experience is spiritual preparation for the transition from life to death. 

The weekly Torah portion opens with an affirmation of life--Vayehi Ya'akov--"Jacob lived." It concludes with an affirmation of death--Vayamawt Yosef--Joseph died." Our journey from life to death is fraught with awe and mystery and punctuated by moments of intense joy and great sorrow. The jubilant cacophony of the URJ biennial; the hushed silence and darkness of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the laughter and tears of "The Mikveh Monologues"--remind us to elevate and sanctify life's precious moments throughout our journey in this world and beyond.