Imagine you wake up in a hospital bed with amnesia, with no idea who you are. You try to recall your most recent memory and how you got there, but you can’t seem to remember.
Suddenly, a few men enter the room and give you the shocking news that you are the president of the United States and that once you’re feeling better, they have some important issues that you have to deal with. How would you feel? You’d probably hold your head high, realizing that you are someone important. But what if they informed you that you were the hospital janitor and they’re awaiting your return to the bathrooms on the second floor.
How would you feel then? How would you think of yourself?
The Spiritual Concept of Water
A central question in the story of Noach is why Hashem chose to destroy the world with a flood. Hashem could have chosen any form of destruction, and yet He chose water. We naturally associate the story of Noach with the mabul and the teivah, but couldn’t there have been another form of this story? What is the significance of water?
The Maharal explains that the fundamental nature of water is that it is formless. Water has no form of its own but rather takes on the shape of its container. Unlike dry land, which has paved paths, the ocean has no pathways or landmarks. This characteristic of water indicates its essence. Water represents the initial stage in every creative process. Before something becomes expressed and takes on form, it remains in a formless state. Through the creative process, physical form emerges from this amorphous beginning. This is why the Torah states that during the original creation of the world there was only water. Only afterward did dry land emerge.
This is the deeper meaning of the mabul: Hashem was not destroying the world; he was recreating it. The generation of the Flood had become so corrupted that Hashem decided to start over again with Noach. Hashem therefore immersed the world in water so that it would go back into its primordial state of formlessness and void. Only once it went back into its original state could the dry land emerge from the waters, recreated. Only then, when the world was birthed again, did Noach leave the teivah.
This is also why each of us is surrounded by amniotic fluid when we are in our mother’s womb. Just as the creation of the physical world emerged from formless water, so too, do we each have our own creation story and emerge from our own waters. Our birth is like the birth of a new world (Sanhedrin 37a). When we are in our mother’s womb, a malach teaches us the entire Torah (Niddah 30b). As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that is beyond this world, beyond the confines of shape and time. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you understood every aspect of it clearly. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you were also learning your specific share of Torah – you were being shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world, emerging from these formless waters, with the mission to give form to everything you were shown in the womb, in your primordial and perfected state.
Further proof of this principle is the fact that Klal Yisrael had to enter the Yam Suf when leaving Mitzrayim. The commentaries point out that this journey through the Yam Suf appears to be pointless. After all, the Midrash explains, Klal Yisrael exited on the same side that they entered. If Hashem wanted to destroy the Egyptians, there were far easier ways to accomplish this. What was the purpose of such a journey? The Maharal explains that yetzias Mitzrayim was the creation and birth of the Jewish People. Thus, just as the creation and the recreation of the world emerged from water, the Jewish People had to be born from water as well. They therefore entered the water and emerged reborn. As the Midrash explains, the splitting of the Yam Suf was like a pregnant woman’s water breaking. They entered as individuals, but emerged reborn as a nation. The entire world, the Jewish nation, and every single individual person has a creation story of emerging from formless water into concrete existence.
Mikvah: Personal Re-Creation
This also sheds light on the unique mitzvah of entering the mikvah. When you immerse yourself in the water, you’re going back to a pure and formless state; the original state of perfection you possessed in your mother’s womb. You are going back to your root, your higher self, your original source. In doing so, you “wash off” your spiritual impurity, reattaching yourself to your pure and root self. When you emerge, you emerge reborn, recreated, as if taking on form and shape for the first time. It is like the dry land emerging from the primordial waters.
This understanding sheds light on the many unique times that the mitzvah of mikvah is mandated. A Jewish convert must immerse him or herself in the waters of a mikvah as the final step in the conversion process, because a Jewish convert is considered to be born anew “(ger k’nolad dami”). The convert entered as an old version of himself and emerges anew – reborn, ready for a new way of life.
Recreating Our Identity
We don’t need to have amnesia to recreate our identity. Every day, we get to choose who we are, what we believe in, and how we are going to live our lives. We don’t have to continue making the same mistakes again and again. Each day, we can restart anew. As Avraham said, “I am but afar v’efer – dirt and ashes.” “But there is a fundamentally deeper explanation of this statement. Ashes represent an elemental breakdown, the most basic particles of an object. Dirt is the starting point of growth, the place where seeds are planted and given life. Avraham was saying that every day he would “ash” himself, breaking his very self down into his elemental and root form, and then plant himself anew. In other words, Avraham would recreate himself every day. Each day, he looked deep within himself, broke every aspect down, and recreated himself for the better, taking his life to the next level of spiritual growth. Avraham never continued living the same way he had before simply because it was comfortable, or because he was used to it. Avraham challenged himself daily, constantly pushing himself to become the very best he could be.
May we all be inspired to embark on a journey of genuine afar v’efer, finding excitement and meaning in our constant growth and internal recreation.