Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Eytan Feiner of The White Shul in Far Rockaway give a speech on "Aquatic Perfection: The Mitzvah of Mikvah, and The Wild World of Water."
I enjoyed hearing Rabbi Feiner speak. He included many references and gematriot in his speech which I did not catch/ write down, so what I'm going to reproduce below are some of the major themes and ideas that I found interesting. This should in no way be seen as reflecting his entire speech, or even all of his ideas. Some I'm deliberately skipping, and some I did not catch.
Rabbi Feiner began his speech with an interesting anecdote. He suggested that the Israelis and Palestinians decided that instead of fighting each other, they were going to create a war between dogs. Each of them had five years to breed the dog they wanted to put into the arena. And so the Palestinians made sure to get rottweilers, pitbulls and wolves and mate them together in order to create a really ferocious dog. The Israelis simply brought out an odd, very long daschund. When it came time to fight, the daschund swallowed the ferocious dog. When asked how they accomplished this, the Israelis said, "You spent five years trying to breed the most ferocious dog. We spent five years trying to get a plastic surgeon to get a crocodile to resemble a daschund."
In the time of Pharaoh, the Egyptians worshipped the Nile. In fact, Princess Bitya (or possibly her father) was named after the crocodile god, according to some sources. The reason that Pharoah would go down to the Nile River in the morning, per some other sources, was because he wished to worship the sun (Ra) and the Nile at the same time, so he made sure to be there at the sunrise. So we know that water was very powerful in ancient traditions and ancient religions.
The question is: Why do we as Jews see the water as powerful? Why is it that when we go to the mikvah, we dip in water rather than cream cheese or butter?
The answer to this is rather lengthy, and it begins all the way back in the time of Adam.
Adam is considered the Master Namer, the Namer of all Creatures. Adam names all the creatures, but he does not name the fish. There is no named fish mentioned in the Tanakh itself (the Leviathan appears elsewhere). (I was confused by this part. As far as I am aware, and I could be wrong, no animals are named in the Tanakh, either. I always thought the naming simply meant naming the animals as a species. I'll have to email the rabbi and see). Several sources explain that God literally brought the animals (the ones that were not domesticated) to Adam in order for him to name them, and thus it would have been impossible for God to bring the fish to him. After all, if you take a fish out of water, it will die. But this is not sufficient for some others, who question it and say, God is God. He can perform miracles. Why then doesn't he miraculously allow the fish to live and bring it to Adam? There must be a deeper reason.
A name is how we highlight the core essence of anyone. The word sham means 'there.' The word shem means 'name.' A shem gives someone a sham, a place to be, to exist. The word neshama, which means soul, has the word shem as its inner letters.
The Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel said that there is no name given to the fish by Adam because we do not have any communication with them. They do not live with us on dry land; they live in the water. Think about it. If you have a pet dog or cat, you probably communicate with them and play with them. But rarely if ever does one communicate with one's goldfish. A name is given when you want to form a relationship with something. This to the point that in fact, if you name a cow, thus causing you to have a relationship with her, she will produce 250 liters more milk per day than a regular cow.
The mitzvah of Tashlich is meant to be performed by water where there are fish. The reason for this is because there is an idea that none of the fish's foibles creep past the water. There is an idea that no ayin hara (evil eye) can penetrate past the surface of the water. Kishuf (evil magic) also cannot penetrate water.
When God destroyed the world in the Mabul during the generation of Noach, the reason he did that, per R' Tzadok, is because that mabul served as a Mikvah. Everything that had contact with that purifying Mikvah died, with the exception of the people and animals on the ark, and the fish.
So clearly there is something in the world of water that is significant. There is an idea that we can trace the sophistication and civilization of the world by looking at beverages. The world began with water. Then we had beer, then spirits, then coffee, then tea, then coke, and now we are back to water again. There are over 800 brands of bottled water available.
In the Creation story, there are three disparate words that are used- Asa, Bara and Yatzar. The question is: What is the difference between these three words?
Briah refers to creation ex nihilo, something from nothing.
Yetzirah refers to giving something a tzayar, adding features and dimensions to it.
Asiyah refers to completing something- it's the idea of makeh b'patish, taking the final step to complete something and make it usable.
God deliberately left the world uncompleted. We as humans help to complete the world and help it to achieve perfection.
But the waters of the world belong to God. He completed them; there is nothing active to build or to create in the water. Hence there is an idea of the concept of asiyah referring to the waters. God finished the waters; humans cannot add more to them. This is part of the meaning behind the word Mayim being a palindrome- backwards and forwards it is the same. It needs no extra steps or completion.
But the earth is not done or ready- the world has features but we need to take it further. For instance, one of the commands we are given is to settle the world. One of the opinions is that when it came to the Dor HaFlaga, the Generation of the Dispersion, part of their sin was that they did not want to settle the world. They preferred to stay in one place and build rather than spread out.
If you look at the creation narrative, you will see the name Elokim used for God over and over. Elokim and HaTeva both have a numerical value via gematriyah equal to 86. Elokim can also be read as meaning Kel HaYam, God of the Seas. This is why God usually manifests via water. When we cried out Zeh Keli, This is my God, we did that by the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.
Fish do not need shechita, ritual slaughtering, beause we do not need to perfect them further. They live in God's element, the water, and thus they do not need us to help make them more godly. This is also the reason fish do not need to be brought as korbanot. The element of water is not our element- it is not our world. We cannot live there; if we would try to live underwater, we would die. There is an idea that Satan and Shedim live near the water because they do not live in our world. We live on the Yabasha, the place where God dried up the waters, but in the very beginning water covered the entire earth- God was everywhere.
There is an idea in Perek Shira that when the fish sing, what happens is that the Kol Hashem is heard constantly over the water. The Shem Mishmuel says that water of the world is a different dimension than the rest of the world. Thus, mikvah is when you want to remove the person of old and want to emerge a new person. Therefore, you leave behind your world and you go into God's world, the world of water. You need to be fully submerged within it, and when you leave, you emerge a briah chadasha, a new creation. It is almost like a form of symbolic suicide. It's like going back into the womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid, and then you come out and you are a new person.
When a woman comes out of the mikvah, she comes out fresh and tahor, ready to renew her marriage. But the Rav on Parshat Korach in Shiurei HaRav says that a person who wants to convert does both milah and tevilah. Why milah? In order to brand yourself with a mark that shows you are an eved Hashem, in the same way that knights have coats of arms that identify them. Going into the mikvah shows that the person now wants to connect with God. The person is leaving dry land and going into the water in order to connect to God. They are leaving the world of safety and security, of materialism, and connecting with God in his world.
The very nature of fish, that live in water, in God's element, is to be called Dag. Dag is comprised of two letters- daled and gimmel. Daled equates to 4 and gimmel to 3. Daled plus Gimmel gives you 7, the number of completion or satiety. (Rabbi Feiner wrote a 37-page-paper on the number seven; email him if you want to read it). Since a Dag is already at completion, there is no need to do anything more to it, such as shechita or korbanot, in order to make it better.
Then you have Gad. Gad was the seventh son born to Yaakov. Others point out he was born at seven months. And still others say that he was born circumcised- also, completed. There was no need to do anything more to him.
The Arizal writes that when a tzadik, a righteous person, has to be megalgel (return to the world again in order to fix a minor error), he reincarnates as a fish. It makes sense if you consider the fish to be the perfect creature that lives within God's element.
The largest creatures in the world live in the water (blue whale). The tallest mountain, from base to tip, is found in Hawaii and is found in the water. The Yam Suf and the Mabul are examples that show that when God wants to punish, He uses water. Ten minutes of one hurricane has more power than nuclear weapons. Most miracles involve water (Moshe by water, Yehoshua by water, Eliyahu and Elisha by water). The world melech equates to the gematriya of water, because God uses water to show His power over the world.
Even today, when we have so many amazing technological innovations, we cannot control the weather. We can be in charge of everything in the world, but not the weather. God's gevurah is highlighted via water. The very words gashmiut and matar show that everything material in the world comes from the rain (geshem) and that matter comes from dew (matar).
If seven is the number of satiety, completion and Teva, then 8 is the number that is l'maaleh min haTeva- one step further. This is why Shemini Atzeret is l'maaleh min haTeva. Obesity is called shamen- more than satiated. Neshama and shemoneh are the same letters. A horizontal 8 represents infinity. Chanukah is 8 days and the Chashmonaim are 8 times Shemoneh. Parshat Shemini includes the stories of Nadav and Avihu, where they went beyond what they were supposed to do.
When it comes to the holiday of Sukkot, for 7 days we are judged on water, and we use and wave plants that grow near the water. Only on the 8th day can we then approach and recite a Tefilat Geshem. There is an idea that Moshe corresponds to Shemini Atzeret; he was saved in the water and was able to control the water (Yam Suf) and sinned with water.
The main takeaway is that water is God's element, that the creatures that live within the water do not need to be perfected by human means, and that thus, by immersing ourselves in water, we are showing our desire to reconnect with God in His element.