Imagine waking up in a hospital bed with amnesia; you haven’t the foggiest clue who you are. You try to recall your most recent memories and how you may have gotten here, but you can’t seem to remember. After a few seconds, you come to realize that you truly have no idea who you are. Just then, a group of men enter the room and deliver some shocking news. They tell you that you are the leader of the country, and that once you’re feeling better, there are some important issues for you to deal with. How would you feel? You’d probably hold your head up high, realizing that you are someone important. But what if instead of addressing you as a world leader, those same people informed you that you were the hospital janitor; instead of awaiting your return to the Oval Office, they’re awaiting your return to the bathrooms on the second floor. How would you feel then? What would you think of yourself?
A central question in the story of Noach is why Hashem specifically chose to destroy the world through a flood. Hashem could have chosen any form of destruction, and yet, He chose water. Why?
In Judaism, water is often associated with the mitzvah of mikvah, the requirement to immerse oneself in a natural water bath in order to cleanse oneself of spiritual impurity. What is the meaning behind this strange action? Washing oneself with water removes physical filth, but how does it affect one’s spiritual state? In order to understand both the Mabul (Flood) and the unique power of mikvah, we must first understand the spiritual concept of water.
The Spiritual Concept of Water
The Maharal (G’vuros Hashem, chapter 19) explains that the fundamental nature of water lies in the fact that it is formless. Water has no independent form of its own; it adopts the shape of its container (It is pure chomer–matter, without any tzurah–form). The ocean is completely formless and, unlike dry land, it has no pathways or landmarks. This attribute of water reflects its essence. Water represents the initial stage in every creative process. Before something becomes expressed and takes on form, it exists in a formless, amorphous state. Through the creative process, physical form emerges from this intangible, formless root. This is why the Torah states that during the creation of the world, there was initially only water. Only afterwards did dry land emerge from the water (B’reishis 1:9).
Destroying or Recreating?
This is the deep secret behind the Mabul: Hashem was not destroying the world, He was recreating it. The Dor HaMabul (Generation of the Flood) became so corrupted that Hashem decided to start over with Noach alone. Hashem therefore immersed the world in water so that it could return to its primordial state of formlessness and void. Only once it reverted back to its original state could the dry land once again emerge from the waters, recreated and reformed. And only once the dry land emerged, and the world was birthed once more, could Noach leave the Teivah (Ark).
This deep nature and purpose of water also explains why we are surrounded by amniotic fluids while we are in the womb. Just as during creation, the physical world of form emerged from formless water, each of us has our own creation story, and therefore, we each emerge from our own waters; our birth is like the birth of a new world (Sanhedrin 37a).
A further example of water’s unique spiritual purpose is apparent in the events of K’rias Yam Suf (Splitting of the Red Sea). The Maharal (G’vuros Hashem, chapter 55) explains that Y’tzias Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt) was the creation and birth of the Jewish People. Therefore, just as the creation and 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. In essence, 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 each individual person has a creation story of emerging from formless water into concrete existence.
Mikvah: Personal Re-Creation
Having shown that water serves as the means of recreation, as in its role within K’rias Yam Suf, we can now understand the unique mitzvah of entering the waters of a mikvah. When we immerse ourselves in the waters of the mikvah, we return to a pure, formless state – the original state of perfection that we possessed while in the womb. By returning to our root and reconnecting to our higher selves, we “wash” away our spiritual impurity. When we emerge, we emerge reborn. It is as if we have been recreated, taking on form and shape for the first time. The process of emerging from the mikvah is comparable to the dry land emerging from the primordial waters.This sheds light on the unique circumstances that require immersion in a mikvah. For example, a Jewish convert (ger) immerses in the waters of a mikvah as the final step in the conversion process. This is because a Jewish convert is considered to be born anew (“Ger k’katan she’nolad dami” [Y’vamos 22a]). The convert immerses in the waters of the mikvah, the medium of recreation, and emerges reborn. He or she entered as an old version of him or herself, but emerges anew – reborn, ready for a new way of life.
The Number 40
With this background, we can understand the prevalence of the number 40 in the story of the Mabul, as well is in relation to the waters of the mikvah.
The floods of the Mabul lasted 40 days;
A kosher mikvah requires 40 saah (a biblical measurement) of water;
Chazal state that until 40 days after conception, the fetus is considered “maya b’alma” – formless and like water.
What is the meaning behind these different features of 40, and what is the connection between them and water?
The number 40 represents the spiritual concept of form, the point at which something formless takes on concrete form. This is apparent throughout Tanach and Halachah:
The Mabul lasted 40 days and nights because this was the amount of time it took for the world to transition from formlessness to its recreated form.
A mikvah requires 40 saah because this is the amount of water required for a person to transition from formlessness to a newly created form, a reborn self.
Until 40 days, the fetus has no form at all; only after 40 days does the fetus begin to take on concrete form (B’rachos 60a).
Moshe spent 40 days and nights on Har Sinai while receiving the Torah, which was a reformation of reality itself.
The Jewish People spent 40 years in the midbar as they went through the process of recreating their identity and preparing themselves to enter Eretz Yisrael.
Chazal (Avos 5:21) state that 40 is the age of binah (understanding). Knowledge is the attainment of formless facts and details; understanding is the ability to source all expressed details and facts back to their root principles and concepts, giving meaning and form to the countless scattered facts.
Recreating Our Identity
Every day, we get to choose who we are, what we believe in, and how we are going to live our lives. Each morning, we get to create our identity. We are never stuck in the patterns of our past; each day we begin anew. As Avraham, who makes his first appearance at the end of Parshas Noach, said, “Anochi afar va’eifer” – I am but dust and ashes. This is generally understood as a statement of extreme humility. However, there is a fundamentally deeper explanation of this statement, as well. 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. In a deeper sense, Avraham was saying that every day he would “ash” himself, breaking his very “self” down into its elemental, root form, and he would then plant himself anew. In other words, Avraham would recreate himself every single day. Each and every day, he looked deep within himself, examined and broke down every aspect of his “self,” and then recreated himself for the better, taking the next step in his spiritual growth. Avraham never continued living the same way 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 va’eifer,” finding excitement and meaning in our constant growth and internal recreation.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com