An Underestimated Ritual

The recent announcement by NASA confirming that they have found flowing water on the surface of Mars should be of great interest to those who wonder if life, as we know it on earth, is present on other planets. And it may also be of interest to Jews as we grapple to find meaning in the rituals our tradition calls on us to practice.

NASA scientists have long believed that there is frozen water on Mars, likely trapped in its polar ice caps and beneath the surface of the Red Planet. While frozen water may signal that there was once life on Mars, the discovery of flowing water signals the possibility that life, albeit microbial, exists. The reason, simply put, is that flowing water is the cradle of life itself, and this reality is likely true everywhere in the universe. Thus, many religions view water in deeply symbolic terms and use it as an instrument to articulate our yearning for life.

Judaism clearly holds that water is a symbol for life itself. While the Torah tells us that we may not eat meat with blood in it, stating that blood is equivalent to life (thus the kosher laws require that blood be removed from meat through soaking and salting), it places an even greater emphasis on water as the symbol of life. The Sukkot holiday culminates with a prayer for rain, reflecting the truth that life will be sustained and renewed only if rain falls. In fact, one of the great pageants of the year in Biblical times was the Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeva, a water libation ceremony complete with processions with flaming torches, the Lulav and Etrog, and prayers for a rainy season held at the end of the Sukkot holiday in Jerusalem.

Water is used in several cleansing rituals that are meant to represent our transition from a state of impurity to one of purity, a form of reclaiming life. Water is used as well to signify transitions to other stages of life. Menstruating females are required by Jewish law to immerse in a Mikveh seven days after the conclusion of their cycle; this practice is meant to symbolize the renewal of the capacity to conceive life. Jews-by-Choice are expected to immerse in the Mikveh to symbolize their embrace of a new spiritual life. The deceased are cleansed with water before burial in a ritual known as tahara to symbolize the transition from life in this world to another realm of existence. And Jewish people wash their hands ritually before eating a formal meal (one accompanied by bread) to demonstrate our elevation to a higher state of being, a transition from animal to holy creature capable of generosity and gratitude.

We use water on a daily basis for numerous mundane purposes and often, I imagine, we pay no attention to its symbolic value. Through its water rituals, Judaism asks us to appreciate that value. So the next time you eat a meal, I urge you to pause before eating. Wash your hands for the purpose of focusing your attention on something bigger than the food. Recite a blessing to affirm that this act of mindfulness is a specifically Jewish act (Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinhu Melech Ha-Olam Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu Al Netilat Yadayim…Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified our lives by instructing us to wash our hands before eating). Before eating, contemplate the source of the food you are about to eat. Ask yourself where it came from, and express gratitude to the Source of Creation who enables us to eat. Ask yourself how many nameless people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and consider how you can help them. Approach the act of eating with gratitude, humility and compassion, all of which are necessary for us to commit to helping others.

This simple ritual, whose significance has long been underestimated, has the power to transform each of us.

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