Ritual. We studied it, we practiced it, we analyzed it. Great ritual, we were taught, creates lasting memories, stories that live for years. Learning to create ritual was part of my rabbinic training, and my teachers were awesome architects of the same.
Naturally, one wants to live up to one’s teachers.
Last week, a young woman in my congregation went before a beit din, a panel of three rabbis to complete her conversion to Judaism. Big ritual. Huge.
I prepared with care for her beit din and for her mikvah, the ritual immersion that formally completes the process. I had a beautiful tallit at the ready, a prayer shawl in all her favorite colors. Between her beit din and the mikvah, we would go out to dinner and before our meal I would lovingly lay the tallit on the table. She and her three witnesses would tie the tzitzit, the ritual fringes at each corner. The tying would be a spiritual practice and gift. We would wind and knot threads with our blessings and hopes. It would be heartfelt, prayerful, lovely.
I imagined myself naming each Hebrew letter of the tetragrammaton, and demonstrating how our loops and knots made it possible for us to tie God’s unpronounceable name into each fringe. “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, YHVH,” I would say. “Each letter is paired with a number, each number breathes a sound. Think it, and you’ll hear it: The unpronounceable name ends in a whisper.”
Then we would travel to a nearby lake, where a family had kindly offered us the use of their dock for the young woman’s mikvah. We would recite blessings I had crafted especially for her. Women supporting each other, co-creating a ritual we would all remember the rest of our lives.
What is it they say about the best laid plans?
One of the women got lost finding the restaurant, which had failed to turn on its neon signs. I talked her back to the right intersection on my cell phone, standing on the corner, jumping up and down and waving both arms frantically. When she got out of her car, a stream of unprintable things emerged from her otherwise calm and pragmatic person. Then I called the last woman who is chronically late to everything.
“ETA?” I asked.
“I don’t know where I am,” she answered.
I repeated my routine, hoping no one would recognize the small, hopping woman on the corner as the rabbi of Temple Or Olam.
Later, I laid out the prayer shawl in the near empty restaurant on an empty table. I began leading us through winding and tying. I asked the women to silently weave their prayers into the tzitzit. Ahh, I said to myself. This will be wonderful. Sweet. Transcendent.
“Whatcha all doing?” asked a curious staff member. “That’s puurrty,” she added, pointing at the tallit. “What’s that?”
While I was explaining, one of the woman got her threads twisted up and started joking about being handicraft challenged. Then the food arrived, and I had to find a way to keep the tallit from getting immersed in balsamic vinaigrette.
Later, we piled into one of the cars to make the drive to the lake. It was only minutes away. We got lost almost immediately – despite Google maps. There were many u-turns and a close encounter with a car with flashing blue lights.
Finally, we found the house. We climbed out of the car and began traipsing over the lawn, which, despite the terrible drought, was both very long and very wet. Sprinklers? Condensation from the lake? Suddenly, the young woman told us in a small voice that she was actually terrified to get into that lake and that she hated nature and that there were bound to be live things, including fish, in the water, and that the lake bottom would be nasty and muddy, and and and.
The other women attempted to comfort her.
“You’ll be all right,” said one.
“It will be fine,” added the other.
Our young woman kept describing the horrors that awaited her. We rounded the house and walked toward the pier, the small flashlight in my hand shedding insufficient light. We were nearly at the water’s edge.
“Omigod!” our young woman squealed. “What is that?”
“Omigod,” whispered someone.
“Omigod,” I said, in utter disbelief.
All of us saw it, despite the dark. Between the small flashlight I was carrying and the lights from the house, we couldn’t miss it.
A bobcat. He stood stock still, staring right at us.
Gingerly, we walked half backwards onto the pier, hoping the thing would go away.
“Is it still there?” one of the women asked.
“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell.”
It will go away, I told myself, as we all made our way to the end of the pier. It will go away because we are making a fearsome noise. Dear, Holy One of Blessing, I prayed internally. We’re not so good with this much nature just now…
It has gone away, I told myself, as the young woman climbed into the water.
We heard a splash.
“I saw that!” she cried out. “There was a fish jumping over there!”
She began frantic movements in the water to scare away the fish.
“Go away!” she called out. “Go away!”
She was thinking of the fish. I was thinking of the bobcat.
We raised a towel, the young woman took off her bathing suit, and I pulled out laminated sheets with our brachot. Three of us crouched around the laminated sheet and the little flashlight. One of us stood with her paper copy illuminated by her cell phone. (Later she told me that she was stealing herself to kick the bobcat into the water if it attacked. I don’t know what she was thinking. This is a woman with weak ankles, and I am not sure she could kick a nerf ball, much less a snarling, though smallish, beast. And another thing: How do cats feel about water?)
I asked everyone to breathe deeply. Somehow, we regained our sense of place and, after nervous giggles and anxious interjections from our young woman, we read our blessings in turn.
Before her final immersion, we blessed her with the fearlessness of Ruth. “Our people is your people,” the women read together. “Our God is your God. We are standing together at the mountain of Sinai, ready to receive the gift of Torah.”
She slipped back into the water a last time. She emerged. We chanted the Shema and the Shehechiyanu softly in the moonlight, and wrapped her in the towel and the tallit. We walked back down the pier and sighed with relief; we did not see the bobcat.
We got lost all over again going back to the restaurant parking lot. We laughed and mazeltoved and drove home.
There was, I admit, some residual anxiety on my part. When I got home it was nearly midnight. Nevertheless, I asked my husband, Ralf, to google pictures of bobcats. “Yes, it looked like that nasty, scary one right there!” I said.
“Were its ears forward?” he asked.
“I… I think so,” I answered.
“Then you were fine,” he said comfortingly. “When you don’t see their ears, that’s when you have reason to be on your guard.”
“But I was already scared!!!” I protested.
Our son, Erik, gave advice from his survival training course. Everyone should group together so you look like one large entity to animal in question. Spread out your clothing so you look bigger, and back away slowly…
“At least,” he concluded, “I’m pretty sure that works with elephants.”
The next morning we all received this email from the young woman we love:“Don’t worry everyone, found out this morning it was simply a statue in the backyard to SCARE THE GEESE!!! Out of control! Thanks again for being there last night. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. J”
I had dreamed of this beit din for a long time. For weeks, I had imagined us at the pier in sweet darkness, women alone and prayerful, conscious of our strength and our joy.
The real world played tricks on my dreams. There were so many emotions I never imagined. Aggravation and impatience at getting lost again and again. Unexpected and unknown fears. Giggly and giddy lightness.
“This is one crazy mikvah story,” one of the women said.
“I don’t think we will forget this one,” I said.
It was awesome ritual.