When I go to the mikveh, I’m bored. I go, I soak, I read in the bath—by far my favorite part of the entire experience—I shower, I dunk, I leave. Recently, one of the balaniot at my local mikveh has started asking if I wanted to spend some extra time in the water before coming out. Every time I hear that offer, a part of me is thrilled that my community is offering this space and moment in time and that part of me hopes that people take advantage of it. The rest of me just says “No thank you” and gets out as fast as possible because obviously this is not for me.
I have a feeling I am not the only mikveh goer who finds the whole experience devoid of spirituality. Which is not to say that going to the mikveh is a bad experience for me. There is a vast gulf between inspiration and resentment, and I wonder who else lives with me in this space of resigned tolerance. It’s fine, we say, it’s no big deal. Halevai that apathy was the worst emotion that the mikveh ever evoked in those of us who visit it. And yet there is something disappointing about coming out of the perfectly heated mikveh and being left, well, cold.
In writing this piece, I imagined I would use it to recuperate my own mikveh experience and perhaps develop ways to make my immersions meaningful. But I know myself and my spirituality better than that. When I look for meaning, I instinctively search for it in the books about the mikveh and not in the waters themselves. I could read the writings of immersers across time. I could write myself a story about what mikveh means to me. But, as I said, I know myself: I’d step into the mikveh and shrug off that framework of meaning as easily as the bathrobe I was wearing. For good or for ill, there are no chatzitzot—no barriers—in the mikveh. Not even the ones I build for myself and try to take on in the moment. It’s just me, and the water, and the familiarity of ritual, and the knowledge that I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again.
Being here because I have to be is also powerful. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight.” Ritual, obligation, and commandedness can be the support we lean on when we are utterly uninspired. Obligation takes over when inspiration fails. But for those of us who are neither inspired nor aggrieved to begin with, those of us who always come from a place of willing obligation: what do we do?
Maybe we can make meaning in meaninglessness. To come and know that it will be ordinary is a gift in and of itself. Maybe that’s enough. There is power and strength in predictability, in owning that I am here because I have to be and doing the same thing this time that I did last time because it is a mitzvah and I am metzuvah. Water—the ever-flowing element used to symbolize change—becomes still and quiet in the pool of the mikveh where every immersion feels just like every other. Like other repetitive rituals and like the water dripping on the rock, I wear grooves in my identity as I go to the mikveh over and over again. It is a part of me and what I do even though I do not notice its effect on me. Like the process of becoming tahor that happens whether I have intention or not, the mikveh doesn’t need to have meaning to work. It just is. And, instead of trying to find more, I plan to appreciate the ways in which that should be enough.