A chassid once approached his rebbe, Rav Yizchak of Vorke, in a very broken-hearted manner. He had a physical ailment that contact with water severely exacerbated. When he had been ill the doctor had declared with certainty that his illness was the result of contact with water. Not surprisingly, they absolutely forbade him from going to the mikveh even after he recovered. Chassidim are generally very careful to go the mikveh every day. Interestingly, many pre-chassidic sources mention that observing this takanah is essential for true spiritual development. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, brings a list of some of these luminaries, including the Arizal, the Beis Yosef’s Maggid, and the Reishis Chochmah.

With all these sources it is no wonder that the young man felt frustrated by his inability to maintain this practice. The Vorkever Rebbe turned to his young follower and said, “In Bava Kama 28 we find: ‘—The Merciful One absolves those constrained by mitigating circumstances.’ This seems superfluous. Why not just say that one who is constrained by mitigating circumstances is absolved? In addition, who cares if he is since he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah? The Rebbe answered his own question: “Hashem sees into a man’s heart. If a person yearns to do a mitzvah but truly cannot, it is as though the Torah itself fulfills the mitzvah for him!”

The chassid lingered in his rebbe’s presence, obviously unsatisfied with this response. He clearly was hoping to receive a blessing that he would, in fact, be able to immerse in the mikveh. The rebbe admonished him, “Why are you still standing here? Who will do the mitzvah better—you, or the Torah?”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Merciful One Absolves Him”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 161 Seif 1

All of this is probably hard for most Christians to understand. About the closest we might get to the idea of a mikvah is the concept of baptism, but that happens only once in a lifetime. We also might have a tough time with understanding how someone could suffer because they can’t perform a specific action that they believe God requires of them (namely, a daily immersion in a mikvah). For many Christians, the one time event of “being saved” pretty much sums up all of our requirements. If, for some reason, we were unable to physically perform some act of righteousness because of a medical condition, we would more or less assume God would be understanding.

However, observant Jews conceptualize their relationship with God in a fundamentally different way than Christians (and I’ve said this before). For a Christian, it’s all about what you believe. For a Jew, it’s all about what you do. And yet, whether or not the poor fellow in our “story to share” is able to enter a mikveh, does not particularly determine if he will merit a place in the world to come. Also, and this is important, the chassid’s merit in the world to come may not be the primary focus of his life.

Shocking, I know. For a Christian, “getting into Heaven” is pretty much what it’s all about. We are a very future-minded group of religious people. For a Jew, the main focus of a relationship with God isn’t what he’s going to do for us in the future, but what Jews can do for God right now through performing the mitzvot. The inability to obey God and to perform deeds of righteous and charity for the sake of Heaven is very painful for religious Jews. I don’t think we have this concept in the church, but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to cultivate it a little bit.

No, I’m not talking about turning Christians into Jews, having us wear tzitzit, immersing ourselves daily in a mikvah, and kashering our kitchens, but imagine what life as a Christian would be like if our overarching purpose in serving God were to actually serve God right here and right now.

I’m being unfair of course, because many Christians are extremely mindful of their duties to God and to human beings, and Christianity throughout the ages has carried the Torah out of Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2):

Christianity has brought billions of people to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and King of the Jews. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. Even some Jewish scholars have recognized the significance of this fact. In Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10-12, Maimonides credits Christianity with preparing the Gentile world for the arrival of King Messiah by spreading knowledge of the Bible far and wide. If even those who do not claim Jesus as Messiah can affirm the good that has come from Christianity, certainly believers should be able to as well.

-from an unpublished manuscript of a super-secret book I can’t talk about right now

But as James, the brother of the Messiah noted, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

Christianity has helped uncountable numbers of poor, hungry, destitute, abandoned people. Myriads of counselees—drug abusers and alcoholics, victims of abuse, troubled spouses—have benefited from a pastor’s Biblical advice. From Carey and Wilberforce’s campaigns against satī in India to the modern phenomenon of “adopting” starving African children, Christians everywhere have expended their resources to help those less fortunate. Today, Christian orphanages in India take in abandoned children with nowhere else to turn, just as devout Christian George Müller did over a century ago in England.

-from the same super-secret book I still can’t talk about

As difficult as it may be to actually experience the concept, Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Judaism. We share the same foundation. We share the same God. The writers of the New Testament were almost assuredly all devout Jewish men and as such, they would have understood God, the Prophets, the Messiah, and the entire tapestry of the Creator’s continual interaction with humanity from a uniquely Jewish framework.

The Holy Scriptures the church has today were inspired by God and written by Jews. We Christians have done a good bit of “sanitizing” of these works over the past couple of thousand years, but if we choose to, we can try to recapture the good of both Christianity and Judaism as authored and willed by God.

Maybe someday, we in the church will understand why a young chassid would be so anguished to be forbidden to enter a mikvah. Maybe we’ll understand also how the unfulfilled desire to do so can be counted as if completed by the Torah. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll reclaim the ancient tradition and commandment to obey God in this world as our real reason for being here. The world to come will take care if itself.

Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and comforted the mourning the very day all these events were happening. He didn’t wait for his death or resurrection and he didn’t wait for his second coming to start performing tikkun olam (though that won’t be completed until a future time). We don’t have to wait either.

It’s time to immerse ourselves not only in the Word and the Spirit, but into the action of obeying God and living like our Master.

2 thoughts on “Immersion”

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