The Mikve of Israel
The tractate of Yoma ends with a very interesting mishna that is worth examining in depth. It states the following:
Rabbi Akiva says: “Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourself? Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it is said, ‘I shall sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall be purified.’ (Ezekiel 36:26) And it is also said, ‘The mikve of Israel is G-d.’ (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a mikve purifies the impure, the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.” (Yoma 8:9; 85b)
According to the Meshech Chochma, on Yom Kippur when we fast, abstain from wearing leather shoes and take on other changes in behavior so as to show our intent to repent for our transgressions, our connection to G-d is restored to its “factory setting” so to speak. Our factory setting is spiritual, and the image that is given here is water. As we turn from earth to water — from focusing on physicality to spirituality — we connect to the ultimate source of life (hence portrayed here as water as the basis for all life). The drop of water that represents our soul connects to the great purifying ocean that is G-d in the metaphor, and through this connection our “drop of water” is renewed, rejuvenated and purified. For the Meshech Chochma, the first question of Rabbi Akiva as to who is doing the purification points to water uniting with its source. The soul reconnecting with its Creator.
The process of the purification should not be seen as total immersion here. This source repeatedly emphasizes that it is the coming into contact alone that facilitates and completes the process. The idea is based upon a concept in the laws of mikva’ot. The idea can be understood as follows: For a mikve to be kosher it requires a natural water source, and tap water won't do. Many mikva’ot have two parts: a cistern of rain water (a natural water source), and another pool filled with tap water. The halachic concept of “hashaka” teaches that as long as there is a connection between the cistern and the pool, the mikve will be kosher. It is enough for the two bodies of water to touch through a pipe for example to render the “impure” water “pure”. Yom Kippur is the “pipe” that allows us to connect our soul to G-d, and that fleeting moment of touching the “Divine mikve” purifies our souls.
Another way to understand the metaphor of G-d as a mikve is offered by Rabbi Yoshiahu ben Yosef Pinto, known as the Riaf (1565-1648), found in Ein Ya’akov. The Riaf explains that in the same way that a mikve purifies different types of people who are impure, G-d purifies all. As the mishna under discussion teaches, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria holds that Yom Kippur brings atonement only for transgressions we commit against G-d. For transgressions against other people, however, Yom Kippur does not atone without the “victim” being appeased. Yom Kippur is not enough. According to the Riaf, just as some levels of impurity required immersion and a sacrifice, the mikve indeed provided a certain level of purity even though a sacrifice was not yet brought to the Temple. Hence, even if we did not yet take the opportunity to reach out to those against whom we transgressed, G-d does nevertheless purify us to some degree. Although two acts are required for complete atonement and purification, they are independent.
Yom Kippur is a time for rebirth and reconnection to G-d, and by virtue of our connection — through fasting, praying, and contemplating our past, present and future actions — we are purified. May the purification bring us back to our true nature as servants of G-d.