Hope: Survival and Transformation

June 4, 2004
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JEWS HAVE A long-standing love affair with hope. That relationship encompasses at least two perspectives: hope as survival and hope as transformation. We hope because we have survived, and we have survived because we practice “hope.” Hope as an indicator of and precursor to survival has served as a thread of inspiration connecting the past to the present and future. At the time of our birth as a people, the women of Generation Exodus united in the ultimate act of resistance and continued to birth babies despite the bleakness of living in slavery. Another display of radical hope took place in the generation of the Shoah, when women and men came together to create new life in the midst of hell. It continues today, as Israelis celebrate s’machot at risk of their lives.

Hope as survival is not uniquely Jewish. But Jewish hope is present-tense, earthbound, and hands-on. Each of us is obligated to take action to realize the promise of a healed world. This imperative is reflected throughout our liturgy; each Motzei Shabbat, for example, our ode to Eliahu haNavi recollects our dream of tikkun olam. The founding of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Shoah is a paradigm of hope as survival; it is fitting that our national anthem is HaTikvah.

Jewish hope is also about transformation. Several mitzvot represent hope; mikvah is a mitzvah that represents hope as transformation. Visiting the mikvah on a monthly basis, following the rhythm of menstrual flow, gives Jewish women a unique connection to hope. The laws of niddah require abstinence from sexual relations during one’s period and for seven days after, followed by immersion in the mikvah, a practice where we ritually enact rebirth and renewal. Like converts to Judaism, we emerge from these living waters into a radically different reality. My visits to the mikvah often provide me a healing transformation. I enter the mikvah painfully aware that I’ve lost a chance to create new life during my previous menstrual cycle. My seven immersions are a time of intense kavannah and prayer. I emerge from the water feeling whole and ready to try to conceive again.

The healing waters of mikvah can ritually mark any personal milestone, or serve as a place of refuge. The linguistic link between mikvah and tikvah teaches us that while hope as survival hinges on human strength and ingenuity, hope as transformation also maintains a spiritual dimension. To become transformed by hope is to metaphorically immerse in God’s mikvah and be reborn to a new reality. Our tradition reflects this association in a play on words in Mishnah Yoma: “Ashreichem, Yisrael…mikvat Yisrael Hashem.” (Rejoice, Israel…God is your mikvah.)

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Lamelle Ryman received her BA from Harvard in 1999 in Social Studies and Women’s Studies. Following a year as a Dorot Fellow in Israel, she settled in Los Angeles, where she is completing post-baccalaureate pre-medical studies with the hope of becoming an ob/gyn-midwife.

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