Adar II is now upon us. We dust off our megillah trope, hunt for our groggers, and brainstorm costume ideas in prepation for celebrating Purim and reading the Book of Esther in a couple of weeks. It is often taught that Esther is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned. It is a story of human actions, human heroism, human foibles. In this way, it is easy to retell it, relate to it, celebrate it. “Haman was mean, Esther was queen, let’s eat!” reads the invitation to my friends’ Purim seudah: user-friendly indeed.
In stark contrast, we just started reading the book of Leviticus in the Torah. Leviticus is the book b’nai mitzvah students dread, the book in which many of us struggle to find meaning. It’s about sacrifices and purity, priests and esoteric rules. There are dead animals, unpleasant-sounding skin conditions, elaborate rituals, columns upon columns of obscure laws – very little we can relate to. We have left behind the majestic creation stories and the family drama of Genesis, the sweeping, epic narratives of the exodus from Egypt.
The project of Leviticus is to bring God out of the hidden places and down to earth – to make holiness tangible. Just as the end of Exodus detailed the intricate details of the construction of the mishkan (the not-so-helpful English translation is tabernacle, but essentially the mishkan is the physical manifestation of God’s presence in the wilderness), Leviticus continues that project, with all of its priestly rituals and concerns of purity, carefully delineating space and time and action to concretize God’s presence through minutia. Though the rituals of Leviticus may seem strange to us, in effect they serve the same purpose as the rituals we know – lighting Shabbat candles, laying tefillin, immersing in the mikveh. Ritual gives us a way of expression, a way of connecting to the divine. As the scholar Mary Douglas writes, theology is pervasive in Leviticus: it is embedded in every ritual. Just as God is hidden in Esther, God is present in every detail in Leviticus.
Ritual helps us engage with more of ourselves, to connect on more levels. We use all of our senses in reciting blessings, smelling spices, drinking of the wine, and lighting of the candles at havdalah. Immersing in the mikveh engages our senses, too – bare feet on warm stone, reflections in the water, the smell of shampoo, the sounds of splashing and blessings, sometimes tears, sometimes singing. Likewise, the ancient Israelites must have used all of their senses, seeing the ritual of sacrifice, smelling the barbecue, hearing the sounds of the people gathered together; just as the ancient priests must have used all of their senses in the purification rituals for the Tent of Meeting and for the person afflicted with skin disease. By applying drops of blood to ears and thumbs and big toes, the priest uses the tools at his disposal to bring God’s presence down to earth. This, for the Sfas Emes, is our task as humans: to integrate the divine into the physical world – and we do this through ritual.
Leviticus teaches us that washing in water – immersing in a mikveh – can be a means of purification, a procedure for reintegration into the community. Despite the sacrifices involved, the blood and the oil and the priestly details, immersing in water brings stability and normalization, a return to order – much like other rituals can. Perhaps Leviticus can speak to us through this testament to the power of ritual in our lives, in times like those of the book of Esther, in times when God seems hidden, in times when we need it the most.
Robin Weintraub is the Mikveh Center Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim.