Mayim MishegaasMayim Mishegaas

Water: In a time of Harvey, Irma and Jose, considering my personal metaphor

Mayim - whose name means "water" - muses on the creative and destructive power of water
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 09/29/2017 at 7:00 AM EDT

It’s been quite a month for water. Harvey, Irma, and now Jose are bringing waves of waves. Fear and trembling brought on by inches and feet of water, flooding city streets, parking lots, homes and institutions in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

I was named for water. Mayim means water in Hebrew and it has followed me my entire life as a personal metaphor. Water is the element closest to my heart. 

I come alive at the ocean. I dream of whales frequently, and of the oceans as well. I feel connected to the timeless rhythms of the waves – a predictor of unpredictability. Chaos amidst routine. Ebbing and flowing. Water comes in, water goes out.

This time of year brings to mind the spiritual essence of water, as the Jewish New Year suggests that we throw our symbolic sins into the water so that the water can take it all away.

At our harvest festival of Sukkot, which begins the week after Yom Kippur, we pray for water from the heavens. We call them the waters of salvation, because water makes everything new.

And yet, this month we have seen water tear down homes. We have seen water drown dreams. We have seen water destroy, and force people with little resources to start all over. It is so powerful. And it is terrifying. And the power is terrifyingly beautiful, even though it brings such devastation and destruction.

There is a famous ancient poem – read as part of the High Holidays liturgy – which Leonard Cohen turned into a famous song; “Who By Fire?” The poem enumerates the many ways any of us can meet our end; the ancient lyrics tend to focus on natural disasters such as fire and water. Cohen turns it into this:

Photo by Melissa Gruenfeld

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

We have seen water give life in my home city as water from the heavens saved California crops and a drought that had carried on for years. And just across the country; not 3000 miles away, water from the heavens killed crops and lives and hopes and plans. Water swept it away and all people from my side of the country seem to know to say is, “Well, that’s what insurance is for.”

The complexity and duplicity of water is a metaphor for our lives. Everything that helps can hurt. Everything can be turned on its head. Everything can hurt even though we want it not to.

And ultimately, Mother Nature is fierce and she is mighty. Is she the angry God of the Old Testament? Sometimes it seems so, but not this time. I can’t make sense of it that way. I don’t want to.

I think of attachment when I think of these waters of destruction; if I had nothing to treasure, the hurricanes and the tornadoes and the earthquakes could not touch me. They could not hurt me. If I didn’t care about possessions, I would not lament their demise. If I didn’t care about dolls and photo albums and pianos and books and diamonds, I would not miss them if they were swept away.

But I am only human. And the waters this time have wreaked havoc on this country and on the islands so many call home.

The washing of the water is supposed to make it all alright. We are supposed to draw water with joy. Water is the life force in which we are born – the bag of waters is our home after all. But this month, we have all seen the powerlessness with which we must all present ourselves. We must know before Whom we stand.

This time, this water has shown us who by water. And how.

And how.

Photo by Melissa Gruenfeld

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