And Not a Drop to Drink: Water, Separation, and Gathering


If you grew up in South Florida, as I did, then you learned to swim even before you learned to walk.  That’s because there was water everywhere: swimming pools, canals, lakes, and, of course, the ocean.  Knowing how to swim was more than just for recreation – it was a matter of life and death.

Water is life.  Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water.  The human body is 50-60% water, and we need to drink about two liters of water a day to stay alive.  So, it should come as no surprise that water figures prominently in every human belief system.  And, it should not be surprising to know that in almost every case, water is linked to life, purity, and health.  Water is a symbol of life and has the power to purify in almost every religion.  Water is also used by many faiths to initiate a new member. Judaism is no exception: water is also important to our understanding of community.

Community is vital to Judaism.  Torah was not revealed to one person but to the entire nation of Israel.  Almost every meaningful ritual act is performed in community.  The greatest “sin” a person can commit is to voluntarily separate themselves from the community.  However, there are times when separation from community is necessary for either the individual, the community, or both.  These separations, however, are meant to be temporary demonstrated by the fact that we have ritualized the separated individual’s return to the community, and the reintegration always involves water.

Separation from the community is usually based on some form of “impurity” (which is a whole other discussion!).  A person who is Impure is separated from the community for a period of time and then must visit a mikveh before returning.  The word mikveh is used to refer to the ritual bath a person must immerse themselves in order to be “purified.” Mikveh, however, does not mean “ritual bath”: the word literally means “a gathering,” and originally, the ritual bath was called mikveh mayim, that is, “a gathering of water.” Furthermore, the water gathered in the mikveh cannot be separated from all other water.  The water must be a part of all of the living water in the world.  Special plumbing is used so the water flows in and out from a natural source.  In other words, before we once again immerse ourselves in the living community of people, we first immerse ourselves in the gather of living water.

It is easy to see water as a symbol of separation.  In Bereshit[1],  G-d separates the waters; the oceans separate the continents; and there are numerous folk tales about lovers separated by rivers.  But water also gathers us together.  We are connected, one to the other, by the living water in each of us, thus making each us a mikveh, a gathering of living water with the power to give life, heal, and purify each other.  We just have to immerse ourselves in The Other.  Water, water everywhere.

[1] And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water.”

And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so. (1:6-7)


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