Parashat Ki Tisa: Immersing in the “Mikveh Yisrael”
I once attended a wedding where I observed a Rabbi dancing a most unusual kind of dance, one which I had never seen before. Each time this Rabbi passed by the group of young men who were gathered on the dance floor, he bowed down. It seemed strange to me that a distinguished Rabbi would bow to a group of young men. Unable to control my curiosity, I approached the Rabbi afterward and asked him what this was about.
He explained by citing the verse from the Book of Yirmiyahu (17:13), "Mikveh Yisrael, Hashem." The plain meaning of this verse is that G-d is the source of our nation’s hope. But there is also an additional meaning – namely, that a group of Jews assembled together are like a "Mikveh." The word "Mikveh" means "gathered," and it normally refers to water that collected in a confined area. But when Jews gather together in peace and harmony, they also form a "Mikveh" that has purifying powers. One can be cleansed and purified by "immersing" himself in the "Sibur, the community, which is like a "Mikveh," the "Mikveh Yisrael." And so this Rabbi would bow when he passed by the group of young men joyously celebrating together, in order to "immerse" in this very special "Mikveh" and thereby achieve purity.
Parashat Ki-Tisa opens with the command of the Mahasit Ha’shekel – the half-shekel which was given by each person when the time came to count Beneh Yisrael, and each year, to fund the sacrifices in the Bet Ha’mikdash. Every individual gave only half a shekel to express the notion that we all need one another. By ourselves, we are not whole. We are just a "half." It is only when we join with one another and work together peacefully and in unity that we attain holiness. The Torah tells that Beneh Yisrael earn atonement through the "Mahasit Ha’shekel," teaching us that in order to achieve purity and atonement, we need to join together with the rest of the nation, "immersing" in the "Mikveh Yisrael."
Appropriately, the Misva of "Mahasit Ha’shekel" is immediately followed by the command of the "Kiyor" – the special faucet from which the Kohanim would wash themselves before entering the Bet Ha’mikdash. This juxtaposition between the "Mahasit Ha’shekel" and the "Kiyor" underscores the notion of cleanliness and purity, how through the idea of "Mahasit Ha’shekel," of joining together with the Sibur, we are capable of "cleansing" ourselves and achieving purity.
Later in this Parasha, the Torah describes the Ketoret, the special incense which was offered twice each day in the Bet Ha’mikdash. The Ketoret was a blend of eleven different spices, one of which – "Helbena" – was actually malodorous. On its own, the "Helbena" emitted an offensive smell, but when it blended together with the other spices, it became fragrant. The Gemara comments that the Ketoret teaches us the need to join together with all our fellow Jews in prayer and study, even with those who are not as religiously observant as they should be. In order for our nation to achieve the Kedusha that we are to achieve, we must include everybody, regardless of their level of observance, and the sanctity generated by the peaceful assembly of different kinds of Jews will then have the effect of inspiring us all to reach greater levels of Torah commitment.
Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim (1921-2005) had the policy of warmly welcoming all Jews into the synagogue without differentiating in any way between people of different levels of observance. One time, a man who was known to be not particularly committed to Halacha was welcomed in the synagogue and even given a certain honor. After the service, another man, who was meticulously observant, approached Hacham Baruch and angrily protested the honor given to this fellow. He felt it was wholly inappropriate to allow that man to fill such a role, and that this undermined the sanctity of the prayer service.
Hacham Baruch replied by telling him that decades earlier, there was a man who was known to drive to work on Shabbat each week after attending the synagogue. Everybody knew that he worked on Shabbat, but the Hacham decided to ignore this fact, and to warmly welcome the fellow and treat him like everybody else. With time, the family raised their level of observance, and this man’s grandchildren are all passionately committed Jews.
"Really?" the fellow said to Hacham Baruch.
"Yes," the Hacham said, "and that man was your grandfather. You are religiously observant today because your grandfather was welcomed and respected."
When Jews of different backgrounds and different types come together in peace, harmony and camaraderie, they create a very special "Mikveh," generating sanctity and inspiration that can have a profound effect and uplift us all to greater spiritual heights.