This Friday night and Saturday is Yom Kippur. For many, Yom Kippur is a day defined by fasting, while for others, it is a day of prayer. However, according to the great Rabbi Akiva, Yom Kippur is best described as a mikveh, and ‘just as the mikveh purifies the unclean, so God purifies Israel’ (Mishna Yoma 8:9).
This insight of Rabbi Akiva provides us with some powerful imagery and thinking of Yom Kippur as a Mikveh can truly transform the way we perceive our Yom Kippur experience.
Moreover, it should also be noted that a physical Mikveh played a significant role in the ‘Yom Kippur Avodah’ (Yom Kippur service) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) who was required to immerse himself on five occasions throughout his divine service (Mishna Yoma 3:3), and beyond this, all Jews customarily immerse themselves in a Mikveh just prior to Yom Kippur.
However, beyond the powerful imagery, there is more to this metaphor than meets the eye.
We are told that in order to effectively immerse in a Mikveh it is necessary to remove all our outer clothes and ensure that there is nothing on our body or in our hand. In a similar manner, the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a) teaches that someone who has sinned by not repented is likened to one who immerses in a mikveh while holding a dead reptile: ‘for although they may immerse in all the waters of the world the immersion is of no avail; but if they throw the reptile away from their hand then as soon as they immerse… the immersion becomes effective’.
What we learn from here is that just like a Mikveh, Yom Kippur is only effective if we remove all our external layers and masks and if we discard any negativity that we are carrying around with us.
Finally, it is often thought that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. However, we are taught that ‘someone who is impure is only considered pure when they come out of the Mikveh and not whilst they are in the Mikveh’ (Kesef Mishne on Rambam, Hil. Avot HaTumaot 6:16). This teaches us that the ultimate moment of purity is not when we are immersed in the mikveh of Yom Kippur but rather, when we leave the mikveh of Yom Kippur in the hours and days after the fast.
What we learn from all the above is the Yom Kippur is not only a day of fasting and prayer, but a day of immersion and transformation. However, like a mikveh, it is only after we emerge from Yom Kippur when we are truly able to see how much we have been changed through the holiness of the day.