I don’t get how the mikvah works!
Rabbanit Surale Rosen
She'elaI have a question that became more prominent during the coronavirus pandemic, and I wonder if you can help. I keep the laws of Niddah, and Baruch Hashem, we have a good marriage (we have been married for ten years). But all these years I can't figure out what exactly it is that happens when I go to the mikveh. I know that taking a break and creating physical distance each month is positive and maintains good sexual tension; but as for the immersion, I can't wrap my head around it. How does going to the mikveh change the status of my relationship with my husband? The emotional transition between being physical and distancing has become more difficult in light of covid, when things are more stressful and everyone is home almost all the time. I don't really have enough time or emotional energy to process it all.
Your heartfelt question is poignant and touching. The issues you raise are the heart of the relationship between husband and wife, and your question exceeds the halakhic realm.
Your question reminds me of a story. A woman who consults on laws of family purity once told me an attendant at a central mikveh contacted her, and said there is a phenomenon of women who spend a significant amount of time in the mikveh, after they have completed the immersion process. Instead of rushing home, they sit and chat with other women, read some magazines, and seem to delay heading home as much as possible. This was creating some complications with running the mikveh; but mostly the attendant wondered whether the sharp transition is too difficult for some women, just like you described, and whether they were giving themselves time to process the change alone before going home.
When I read your question, I thought of Rabbi Akiva’s statement in the mishna in Yoma, “Happy are you, Israel! Before whom do you become pure? And who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven, as it is said: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean (Ezekiel 36:25). And it further says: O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O Lord (Jeremiah 17:1): just as a mikveh purifies the unclean, so too does he Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.”
Rabbi Akiva is awe-struck by the ‘magic’ of Yom Kippur, when sins become merits, and judgment turns to compassion and forgiveness. There is certainly a sense of spiritual ‘hocus-pocus’ that is compared, by Rabbi Akiva, to the mikveh. Just as one enters the mikveh impure and exits pure, so too one enters Yom Kippur a sinner and exit clean of sin. While this process may be difficult to grasp, we understand that it occurs in our reality.
But Rabbi Akiva also knows that the transition from judgment to compassion, and from impurity to purity, can only be the culmination of a process. We make an enormous effort to purify ourselves in the spiritual and physical sense before Yom Kippur – starting way in advance on Rosh Chodesh Elul; Rabbi Akiva parallels this to the physical purification, which also involves the effort of spiritual and physical preparation.
The transitions between impurity and purity concerning Niddah is sudden; when a woman begins to menstruate, the couple is immediately committed to a new set of rules, and it’s usually hard to pinpoint exactly when menstruation will begin. Conversely, the purification process is more gradual: it involves cleaning, checking and examination, the seven clean days, and finally, meticulous preparation for immersion. There is more time to prepare for the preinitiation of the physical relationship. Perhaps in the days leading up to immersion it’s a good idea to try and spend more (non-physical) quality time together: find some time to speak and share. While it’s difficult to find the time to invest in this relationship in the day-to-day, even in a good marriage, perhaps it’s necessary in the days leading up to immersion, in order to soften the transition, and prepare for the renewed physical relationship.
I hope this provides some direction in response to your delicate and important question.
With kind regards,