31 August 2010

Knocked in the Teeth

21 Elul 5770

All month I've been trying to figure out what will be the right day to get to the mikveh before the New Year begins.  Since some time in the winter, I had set my heart on the idea of using some time there, before the onset of the New Year, to move symbolically through water in order to start or re-start past failed efforts at working on this or that aspect of my deeply flawed nature.

The only pluralistic mikveh in New York City is on the Upper West Side--not exactly a trek, but nonetheless, at this nutty time of year, an effort to get to.  At some point in the future, I'd like to see a mikveh here at Shul.  Brooklyn needs an egalitarian mikveh, open to ritual immersion and conversions officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis.  In the meantime, we head uptown, pay a fee, and make Jews.  Our own neighborhood ritual bath would help re-ignite interest in this beautiful ritual, as Aliza Kline and Anita Diamant have done so admirably in Boston at Mayyim Hayyim. 

In either case, these thoughts were coursing through my mind as I sat in the dentist's chair today, getting my teeth cleaned.  You know there's a phrase about "getting your clock cleaned" which generally means getting slugged in the head, knocked out.  It's apt--and as a phrase, is sometimes used when one "deserves" it.  Same with the teeth.  What a metaphor for residual sin, that dreaded plaque.  An archaeological record of a year's worth of indulgences that we enter into partnership with others in order to excavate.  As the dental assistant and later the dentist hovered over me, robed and protected from my own sin like the High Priest, they worked assiduously to remove the accumulation of my consumption in order, for another year, to get a fresh start.

The teeth.  They're really odd and on a certain level, disgusting appendages.  They play a very important role, no doubt.  Where would we be without them?  But have you ever sat in a chair, under the bright florescence of a dentist's office, held the mirror to your own mouth and examined your teeth and only your teeth?  They're like some primitive remnant of our early evolutionary adaptation that stand the test of time of humanity's march through life.  What we eat and how we eat it and the effect it has on our own development is nothing less than one of the most elemental records of the human enterprise on earth.  And for most of us, the mouth and its teeth are the gateway through which our efforts to sustain ourselves, pass.

Past indulgences hide there.  The scraping and poking and hammering away are all necessary actions which sometime uncover mildly innocent scrapes with the law; sometimes, greater problems, most the result of abuse or neglect, are revealed.  In either case, we pay not only with money but blood.  It's disgusting on a certain level but true.

My dentist is an observant Jew.  I shared with him this thought as he poked and passed me through the gates for another year.  I reflected to him that "years" in Hebrew are שנים shanim and "teeth" in Hebrew are שנים shee-naim, spelled similarly, though etymologically unrelated.  Nonetheless, approaching that throne in Elul is something I will now regularly do. 

And now, it's off to the mikveh.

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