Taking the Elul Plunge

So I want us to notice where we are today. Not in space but in time. This is the last day of the month of Av. When the sun goes down tonight it will be Elul, the last month of 5776. Elul is our month of preparation for the High Holy Days. Observant Jews will recite prayers for forgiveness; Sephardic communities might blow shofar every night. At the least, it is customary to use the month for teshuvah, for cleaning up our messes, accounting for our actions, setting our intentions. So that when we hit Rosh Hashanah, we are completing this soul work, not beginning it. I know we often don't use Elul this way. We typically hit Rosh Hashanah cold. And then we scurry for the Ten Days of Repentance to make some change. And some of us scurry all the way till the end of Yom Kippur, right up until the closing of the gates.

But imagine arriving at Rosh Hashanah warmed up. Immersed. Tenderized.

Last year at our Selichot service that ushers in the Holy Days, I talked about Elul being considered a mikveh in time. A great pool of mayim chayim, of living waters, into which we can, for a short time, dissolve.

How many of you have ever been to a mikveh? It is true that the way we've designed mikvaot in this day and age does not always provide the most appealing experience, especially for what is supposed to be a spiritual experience. They are often cramped, awkward, clinical – like a hospital tub in a gym locker room.

But if you've ever taken a ritual dunk outside, at a hot spring or a natural poolor river, it is hard to ever conceive of doing a mikveh indoors again. Because taking a mikveh in the natural world gives you that moment of being part of something greater – you are first a fish in the water, and then you are the water.

Even if we're just out swimming, we know that lakes and oceans and rivers, feel different. We emerge different: renewed, reconstituted. As if we were freeze-dried before and hadn't even noticed it. And all we needed to do was add water and stir. We feel this instinctively in mayim chayim, living waters, while we rarely feel it in the shower or a pool or a jacuzzi-sized urban mikveh.

The month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe that follow it – that is, from tonight through Yom Kippur – are a mikveh in time, 40 days that feel a lot more like a deep, cool pond than a tepid hot tub. These 40 days give us a good leisurely chance to soak and swim and emerge resaturated; tender and pruny.

Talmud tells us that a mikveh, in order to be kosher, must contain at least 960 lugin of water. We no longer know how much this unit is. But for the mikveh in time, forty days of 24 hours = 960. This is just the right volume of time for us to immerse in.

So here we are, with just this day between us and Elul. We are on a springboard, waiting to dive in. Are we ready?

Well – I don't know how one becomes ready to dive. Diving is a mystery. I wasn't able to watch much of the Olympics this summer, but I did manage to catch one high diving event. High diving is one of my favorite summer Olympic sports. Yes, in part because the divers are kinda hot. (Including the women.) But also because it amazes me. How, in the 10 meters between the diving platform and the surface of the water, someone can do 14 flips and 2 somersaults and a twist or whatever and enter the water vertically and almost silently, is beyond my understanding. We are not dolphins. There is nothing natural about this sport. And yet the divers make it look graceful and effortless.

I am also drawn to this sport because it terrifies me. I'm really quite acrophobic, which is less a fear of heights than a fear of the edge. Whenever I stand on a precipice, or near one, or see a loved one walk close to one, I freeze. My muscles tense into immobility. There are times I feel like I want to fall just to break the terrible tension. But somehow these Olympic divers walk up to the edge again and again and they jump.

No matter how easy it looks, you know how they have practiced, the hours and days and years that it has taken them to learn how to leap. And the practice of learning to leap is a discipline. Because unlike in gymnastics, where your coach gives you a correction and you hop right back onto the pummel horse, after every dive, you have to take the correction and then run up three or four flights of stairs in order to try it again. There is no instant redo. You hear the suggestion, picture it, embody it, all while your body is busy climbing stairs.

Up and down. Up and down. Like in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Like in "High Diving Hare", where Yosemite Sam famously tries to force Bugs Bunny to jump off a very, very high jumping board into a bucket of water. Over and over Bugs tricks him so that he plunges instead. And this happens over and over, until the cartoon just zeroes in on the ladder. Up climbs wet Yosemite Sam. with an ascending bassline. Down he plummets. Up he climbs. Down he plummets.

Thankfully, Jews do not typically dive into a mikveh. The indoor ones are too shallow and confined. And natural bodies of water are usually approached by Jews in the old-fashioned way. You go in up to your ankles, and you shpritz. Then up to your knees, and you shpritz. Then the midriff. The shoulders. And after a very, very long time, the head.

That's how we usually enter the month of Elul and our teshuvah too – the work involved in getting to the new year, to the new beginning. We do it little by little. Sometimes we just stand up to our ankles for the whole month and then on Rosh Hashanah up to our knees, and finally, God willing, drop in on Yom Kippur.

But this year I want to jump. I want to brave the high platform and dive into the mikveh of Elul. This has been a terrible year in so many ways. The presidential race alone makes me want to take a bath. The violence in the world makes me want to immerse in tears. So many members of this community have sick or hurt this year, I want to find healing waters. I've been walking around under a cloud, and I just want it to rain already or for it to be gone.

So 40 days of mikveh. How can they help? After all, it's not real water! It's virtual, imaginal. And wait, even if it were real water, how would that help?

But the chance to dissolve should not be discarded lightly. Because this exercise, even in an imaginal realm, or especially in an imaginal realm, can ready us for what comes next.

The early Chasidic rebbe, the Magid of Mezritch, taught about dissolving. He noted that the word in Hebrew for "I" – ani, spelled alef-nun-yod – is an anagram of the word Ayin, spelled alef-yod-nun, a Kabbalistic image of God that means, literally, "nothing". This is God the infinite, God before Creation, God when there was just God, before there was an illusion of not-God. Ayin is the infinite stream that runs underneath all of what we might call reality.

The Magid instructed that our Ani, our ego, contains all of our investments, attachments, judgments, fears. If we want to be transformed, we must turn our Ani into Ayin. We must let our egos dissolve into the great Nothingness. It is only by passing through Nothingness that we reemerge, transformed, transfigured, aware again that we are not separate from God. We are emptied out, waiting to fill with God's light.

The mikveh of time can do this for us. We can immerse and dissolve. Our ego goes away, our Ani permutes into Ayin. We can feel the deep, cool relief of Nothingness. And then we emerge from the mikveh at the end of Yom Kippur, wet, pruny, full of light, transformed and ready to share that light with the world around us.

Elul starts tonight. And I confess I am scared of the edge. I am scared of this high platform. I am frightened to lose my self and all my investments, my judgments, my hurts that are dear to me. I am scared of the fall and of the cold water.

But this year I will not wade into the mikveh up to my ankles. I will climb the ladder. I will walk up to the edge of the platform and in one continuous motion I will dive. I might do it gracefully like an Olympian, with a somersault and a twist. I might plummet like Yosemite Sam into a bucket. I might bellyflop or breach the water feet first. But this year I will dive into the mikveh of Elul and under the water be reunited with the Nothing that all of this Something comes from.


I am always grateful for all I learn from Reb Elliot Ginsburg.