Amichai: Change, God, Pit, and Mikveh

UPDATE April 15: See also Fabrangen’s Omer Blog for more on “full of water.”

Imagery of a pit [bor] appears over the years in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Frequently, as in the Joseph story (“the pit was empty, there was no water in it” [Gen. 37:24]), Amichai’s pits are without water. Toward the end of his life, however, he published a poem in which a mikveh — which can be understood as a sort of pit filled with water — plays a prominent role:

Then we came to a ritual bath in ruins….
…Speak O my soul, sing
O my soul to the God who is Himself part of the cycle
of praise and lament, curse and blessing.
Speak O my soul, sing O my soul, Change is God
and death is his prophet.
–Yehuda Amichai, stanza #10, “Jewish Travel: God is Change and Death is His Prophet” in Open Closed Open

Here, for Temple Micah’s study group and anyone else interested, are a few references for exploring this idea.

Mikveh Yisrael

The prophet Jeremiah calls God “ mikveh yisrael“:

“O Hope of Israel! [Mikveh yisrael] O Lord!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men,
for they have forsaken the LORD,
The Fount of living waters [m’kor mayim chayyim]
Jeremiah 17:13, JPS translation

The Mishnah uses the association of God with hope and water to explain the power of the Day of Atonement:

And it further says: Thou Hope of Israel, the Lord! [Jer. 17:13] Just as the fountain renders clean the unclean, so does the Holy One, Blessed be He, render clean Israel.”
— Yoma 85b

In Genesis, God “gathers waters” — “yekavu hamayim, let the waters be gathered…” (1:9) — which reinforces the image/pun of God as “mikveh.” Later Jewish literature, especially homilies, reference and develop this idea. See, e.g., remarks from Amichai Lau-Lavie of Storahtelling and this commentary from Baruch Sienna at Kolel.

Some years ago, I wrote, based partly on Aryeh Kaplan’s Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikveh (Mesorah, 1993; limited availability on Google Books), about the Akeda as a mikveh-moment:

This is how the Akeda atones for us. At one moment, it immerses us in a gathering of perspectives in much the same way that a mikvah immerses us in a gathering of waters. Aryeh Kaplan says that an individual entering the mikvah “is no longer bound by either past or future, but exists in an absolute present, which is the one instant of time over which man has control.”

As we enter the Akeda, we also ask God to remember the story with us, like friends who now and then mention a particularly harrowing shared experience because it helps define our relationship. And in God, past, present, and future are gathered together, removing the barrier between past actions and current regret, today’s hopes and our fears for tomorrow. With God in the Akeda, we enter a timeless moment of truth and return to the present–new.
— V. Spatz, “Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda” (1999, originally published in Living Words: The Best High Holiday Sermons of 5760)

Pits With and Without Water

Sienna focuses on the contrast of a pit full of water with that of a pit without water:

If Mikvah can mean both a pool of water, and hope, what is the connection between the two? In Israel, having a storehouse of collected rainwater would certainly mean one has hope. All through Israel one can find ancient cisterns that the Israelites carved out of rock. A pit without water would be a symbol of hopelessness, and Jeremiah would know- like Joseph, he was thrown into a muddy pit (Jer. 38:6).

I argued in my previous post on Amichai’s pits that they represent a collapsing of verb tenses and the possibility of change. I also believe, based on substantial but not thorough study, that his use of pit imagery became more hopeful over the decades of his writing. Adding water to the pit — in the mikveh stanza above — represents the most positive “pit” imagery I’ve found in his poetry to date.

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“Amichai: Change, God, Pit, and Mikveh” by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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