A few days before I went to mikvah to complete my conversion to Judaism, I asked my very good friend, who had finished her own conversion several months before me, if she had any advice or words of wisdom to share. What should I think about in the mikvah? I wanted to know. What should I pray for? How can I maximize the unfathomable G-dly potential of this holiest of moments?
She ignored my spiritually ambitious questions and instead said, “You’re going to feel really, really sad when you go to bed that night.”
I had no idea how to respond to that. How could I possibly feel anything except for the most sublime elation after almost three years of working tirelessly to earn the right to re-join my people? After countless hours of grueling introspection? After memorizing seventy-three chapters of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? After months of calling a Jewish friend to come over and turn on my stove every time I wanted to cook so that I wouldn’t render my new pots treif for the blessed day that I would finally be obliged to keep kosher?
I didn’t believe her.
When the time to immerse came, I was in another world. I had spent the day fasting, praying, and reading Tehillim. The mikvah attendant took my robe, and I carefully walked down the steps into the warm pool of water. She stood above me for a few moments to make sure that the black tarp floating on the mikvah’s surface would hide my naked body from view of the three rabbis who would witness my conversion. Smiling, she asked if I was ready. I was.
I don’t remember what the rabbis said when they came in. I just remember closing my eyes and sliding under the water, waiting to see if I would feel the moment that my G-dly soul made contact with my body.
I arrived home that night and immediately affixed mezuzahs to all the doorways in my apartment. I changed into pajamas and laid down in bed. I said the Shema. And then I cried myself to sleep.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why I cried. I didn’t understand the deep, seeping sadness I felt as I sank into sleep that night.
It has only been over the course of the years afterward, as I, thank G-d, have married, had a baby, and settled in to an indescribably beautiful Jewish life that I have begun to understand.
There is a concept in Torah called yafes to’ar, “beautiful captive” in English: if an Israelite soldier is overcome by desire for a beautiful woman from an enemy nation, he may take her into his home, but he may not marry her or engage in relations with her until thirty days have passed. If, after that time, he still desires her, he may marry her. If not, he must send her home.
Jewish mysticism explains that the beautiful captive is actually a Jewish soul that has been born into a foreign nation. The righteous Israelite soldier desires her because he senses the holy spark within her, and is spiritually compelled to redeem her.
The yafes to’ar is a convert.
And, powerfully, the Torah says of her conversion process, “…she shall weep for her father and for her mother a full month…”
When a person converts, they focus fully on all they are becoming. Because what they are becoming is miraculous.
But what they are leaving behind is also important. Because no matter how warm and close your relationships with your natural family and old friends remain (and thank G-d mine have only grown better in the years since my conversion), a cosmic gulf is created that can never again be bridged: you are now qualitatively and quantitatively Jewish. And they are not.
Though you will, G-d willing, build your own home, you can never really go home again.
Though you have gained Infinity, you have become a stranger.
And for that you shall weep.