Keeping Your Head Underwater

April 26, 2017 at 9:21 AM , , ,

“…He must immerse all his flesh in water – Vayikra 15:16

וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת כָּל בְּשָׂרוֹ – ויקרא טו, טז

The Torah’s laws concerning ritual impurities and their means of purification are in the category of chukim, divine decrees that transcend any reason or understanding. Nevertheless, writes the Rambam, there is an important lesson in character development hinted by one of the primary methods of ascending from ritual impurity: immersion in the waters of a mikveh. In the Rambam’s words (Hilchos Mikvaos 11:162, “Just as one who intends to be purified becomes pure as soon as he immerses himself… Likewise, one who sets his heart on purifying himself from the filth that besets men’s souls—namely, crooked ideals and negative traits—becomes clean as soon as he resolves in his heart to abandon those ideals and immerses his soul in the waters of knowledge.”

Keeping Your Head Underwater

At first glance, the Rambam’s comparison of immersing your body in the waters of a mikveh to immersing your mind in Torah wisdom seems inaccurate. For in order for a person’s immersion in a physical mikveh to be effective, they must submerge their entire body, including their head, beneath the water’s surface. [In fact, the Sages determined the amount of water necessary to constitute a mikveh based on this very requirement—“it must be sufficient water for one’s entire body to be coveredtherein” (Talmud, Pesachim 109a).] In the analog, however, in which the “purification” from spiritual impurities is said to be through “immersing your soul in the waters of knowledge,” it would seem that your mind would be one with the purifying knowledge, not submerged beneath it!

In truth, however, the Rambam’s analogy is precise. For by comparing spiritual purification and transformation to immersion in a mikveh, the Rambam is emphasizing that in order to purify yourself from the impurities of the soul it is not enough to fill your mind with Torah wisdom, you must submerge and “lower” your head, as it were, beneath the waters of the Torah. Meaning, you must submit yourself entirely to the Torah’s ideals, with a devotion that transcends your understanding and intellect. To purify yourself from “crooked ideals and negative traits,” you must immerse yourself in Torah in the true sense of the word—with an attitude of kabolas ol, dutiful acceptance of the Torah’s wisdom over your own.

—Igros Kodesh, vol. 5, p. 90; Toras Menachem vol. 7, pp. 57-58


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