Concerned about rising rates of teenage suicide, pregnancy and addiction, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other conditions which are, at least in part, manifestations of inner distress? Help may come from reclaiming, and in part revisioning, those mitzvoth and practices that mark the cycles of bodily change.
Marriage and physical maturity are no longer always simultaneous phenomena. What rituals can we draw upon in our tradition to help transition a young person intelligently into the body of an adult? What mitzvoth might help adults to honor the cycles of our own bodies, to reconnect with our inherent physical beauty and holiness?
Women, consider reclaiming those Jewish practices that honor the bio-cycles of womanhood. Take time to pause, honor inner rhythms, sense the return of your energy after the hormonal weather systems that come through during menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, and menopause.
There was a European custom found in many religious communities of a mother slapping a girl upon the arrival of her first period; some say that upon bringing blood to her daughter's cheeks, the mother would then give her a blessing for health and fertility, and a warning to guard her "gates" against premarital entry. This maturity interval is far too significant a life marker to leave untouched or so addressed in our times. Some have tried creating women's circles to induct daughters into the mysteries of the body, but some find this scenario uncomfortable.
Let us imagine an alternative scenario. You get your period for the first time and you are told, "Welcome to the sisterhood, may your life as a woman be filled with blessing! When your flow ceases, let's do a little ritual that you can do every month to honor the return of your body cycle, to ensure you well being, and to welcome the restoration of your energy. Let me know when you are ready, and I will draw you a warm bath. We'll put a pan out to collect rainwater to add to your bath. Just as you are made of mayim hayim, living waters, so it is our custom to immerse in a mikvah, a pool of living waters at the end of a cycle of life, which is the egg that has finished its season in your body.
"Let's put in perfumed bubbles of soothing salts, if you'd like. As you rest in the tub, you can review the month gone by. What is it that has lost potential this month, what are you letting go of? What is developing in fascinating ways that you wish to nurture? What blessings and strengths do you hope to draw upon, as a new cycle of days begins? Later, you might write these thoughts in a diary. You can shape your thoughts into a prayer and whisper them— that is a tradition that goes all the way back to Hannah in the bible. Your body is a sacred space and you deserve privacy in your bath, should you wish to share any thoughts with me, I will listen with deep respect.
"Your monthly mikvah is also an important time to check over your body, which is developing so beautifully every day. It is good to enjoy and marvel at the woman you are becoming. Next month I will teach you another mitzvah, shmirat ha-guf—caring for your body, and protecting yourself in several ways. Meanwhile, written in washable fabric paint on this hand towel is the mikvah blessing. I hope you will recite it and perhaps experience the tradition of the bath as a womb; slip under the water and emerge, reborn, into a new month of living and new season of your life. This month, this mikvah, is a celebration of your physical arrival as a woman. Mazel tov!"
The blessing for immersion is simple:
Blessed are you Adonai, our God, king of the universe, Who has made us holy with your mitzvoth, and commanded us on immersion.
Blessed are you Yah, Shekhinah, life of all the worlds, Who has made us holy with your mitzvoth, and commanded us on immersion.
The next month and months might include teaching breast self-exam, contraception, AIDS and herpes awareness, and perhaps given how early in life menstrual onset can begin, a particular focus on how nutrition influences a woman's long term health and beauty. Not every parent is up to such ritual encounters; I've been asked on occasion to serve as a surrogate aunt or mother. Some fathers have offered their daughters such support and done beautifully at it. Others have tried more public rituals, but young girls may be uncomfortable with these. Something more intimate and personal, as above, can work nicely.
Since these monthly bodily experiences are in themselves threshold times, I've combined some new phrasing with the ending of the traditional daily blessing for the body, as a simple blessing for breast or testicular self-exam for you to try. Keep in mind that at least ten percent of men are susceptible to breast cancer (I personally know several men who have died of testicular cancer); prevention is equally essential for you!
One of the Hebrew names for God is El Shaddai. "El" is a Hebrew and Mesopotamian generic word for "God," and Shaddai means "hills" or "breasts," and is sometimes translated as "Nurturing One."
Be-Shem El Shaddai ekra' In the name of El Shaddai I call out
Melekh ha-Olam King of Eternity,
avakesh beri'ut I request health
u-shlaymut be-gufi u-ve-ruhi and wholeness in my body and spirit
be-hayai avarekh et Adonai With my life I will bless God (My Threshold)
Rofei kol basar, Healer of all flesh,
u-maflee la'asot Maker of miracles
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat, Jewish Lights, 2004; more information available at reclaimingjudaism.org. Used with permission of the author.