Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author
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Fragile and beautiful, impossible and possible, dreams

When the world conspires to make me even more aware of how fleeting it all is, the best I can do is try to protect myself and my family from every harm that is in human hands
Illustration by Meira Ner-David.
Illustration by Meira Ner-David.

Last week, after months of working with my partners-in-dreaming-impossible-dreams, Steve Gray and Anat Harrel, to save from destruction a Second Temple mikveh discovered in a pre-construction archaeological dig near our kibbutz, our work paid off and the ancient mikveh was transferred to Hannaton. The impossible dream came true. The mikveh now sits, encased in a metal and wooden cage, waiting to be safely re-“planted” in the ground before the inevitable rains come and tragically do what we managed to prevent.

Unfortunately, I was not there at Hannaton to witness and celebrate the ancient mikveh’s delivery. While others cheered as the mikveh — which had been cut out of the rock where it had been sitting underground for 2,000 years and was uncovered earlier this summer — was lowered by a crane into a pit we had dug for this purpose, I sat in the hospital. Jacob, my beloved life partner of the past 33 years, was receiving an infusion of a drug that would weaken his immune system — which was attacking his skin cells, causing terribly painful lesions on his body, inside and out — and could potentially both save his life and endanger it.

For months, Jacob had been having strange and increasingly debilitating and painful skin issues. He is not one to go voluntarily to the doctor, but I insisted. Finally, after a series of misdiagnoses, creams, pills, and oils that did not work, he was referred to the skin clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where they did a series of biopsies and other tests.

The diagnosis: Pemphigus Vulgaris (PV), a rare (although it seems to be more common among Jews of Eastern-European descent) life-threatening autoimmune skin disease, for which there is no cure, only treatments to help keep the symptoms under control. Before these treatments, people died of the disease within one to two years. Jacob spent three weeks in the hospital, where he received high doses of prednisone. But while the corticosteroids were working, they were not working fast enough, and it is dangerous to be on such high doses for more than a few weeks.

I emailed Jacob’s doctor, the head of Rambam’s skin clinic. I wrote that I did not want to risk going into the hospital building, since I am high risk for COVID-19 — I live with FSHD, a genetic, degenerative and disabling form of muscular dystrophy that began in my facial muscles when I was a child, spread over the past four decades from my upper body muscles to my midsection and then lower body muscles, and recently began spreading to my respiratory muscles as well. Could she please speak with me on the phone? I asked. The doctor did not respond to my email. I called the clinic and left messages, but still no answer.

What a frightening time that was, as my beloved fought for his life and I tried to function in public — working and parenting — while weeping in private and in his arms (I visited him outside the hospital building, trying not to touch him where it hurt), and keep up a hopeful and somewhat “normal” demeanor at home. One of my professions is spiritual accompaniment, and I continued to meet with clients to hold space for them as I dealt with my own spiritual and emotional upheaval.

A specialty of mine is dreamwork, where I help clients understand the messages their dreams hold for their lives. One client told me she had been dreaming about looking for and finding hummingbirds, but then losing them, not being able to hold on to them. Then, in her waking life, her child brought home a wounded hummingbird they had found on the sidewalk.

She kept the hummingbird — whom she named “Quincy” — for a few days, nursing him back to health and becoming quite attached to the bird while she looked for a place that could give him professional care. She found a wild bird hospital, which took Quincy in and promised to be in touch. But then the people at this bird shelter did not answer her emails. She was concerned.

She shared what she was learning from the experience, lessons about the beauty and fragility of life, about attachment and letting go, about trust in the mystery and in the cycle of life and nature. In her sharing, I found wisdom for my own situation. Jacob, the marathon runner who hiked with me on his back and rode me on our tandem bike, on whom I counted to always be there when I fell, was also my fragile and beautiful bird. He was the biggest gift of my life, even if I might have to return the gift to its sender. But I was not going to give it back without a fight.

If the doctor would not answer my emails or calls, I would risk going into the hospital building. I gathered up my mask and my courage and went inside. My fragile beautiful beloved bird needed me.

It felt good to speak masked-face-to-masked-face with the doctor, who explained that, due to the pandemic, she was horribly understaffed and overwhelmed. She too was concerned about Jacob’s condition and the slow pace at which the corticosteroids were working. She suggested we try to get ahold of Rituxin, a very powerful immunosuppressant drug that is not a guarantee but has a good remission rate for PV — although she was hesitant to use it now during the pandemic because it would leave Jacob so vulnerable to the virus. But, given his situation, she thought we had no choice.

I cried all of the way home, with Carol King (“You’re so far away…”) and Celine Dion (“Near, far, wherever you are!”) expressing over the radio what was in my heart, and tried to collect myself to go into the house, where the kids were waiting. I went to the bathroom, checked my emails, and found my client had forwarded me this letter that the “Wild Bird Fund Animal Care Teamhad finally sent: 

Thank you for reaching out to us. I am happy to inform you that the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, nicknamed “Quincy,” is still in our care and doing well. He is still unable to fly, so he is getting flight practice in order to strengthen his muscles, as well as pain medication. Once he is fully recovered, he will be released in a safe location with plenty of his favorite kinds of flowers. We are unable to provide ongoing status updates on all of our patients due to our current volume of them, but rest assured we will do our best for this little one. Thank you for rescuing this little bird and bringing him in to us. He was in great need of help and would not have survived without your intervention. 

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and knew this message was sent to me for a reason. Jacob’s life would always be in danger from this brutal chronic disease, but he would come home and we would deal with this together. The doctors were doing their best. Life is just very, very hard. And also fragile and beautiful. But better to have taken in the bird than not to have had that precious time together at all. It’s all part of love and life.

Luckily, not only did we find Rituxin (also known as Rituximab) in Israel (although under a different name, Truxima), but we discovered that it was covered by our health insurance. The day after Yom Kippur, when Israel was already in lockdown and full-on into a second wave of the pandemic, Jacob received his first infusion of the drug. Ironically, on the day Jacob came home with a dangerously weakened immune system, coronavirus cases in Israel skyrocketed, and I watched from afar over video as many of my neighbors back home gathered — most standing close together and without masks — to welcome the mikveh home.

We live in a small rural community where police rarely enter, let alone enforce COVID-19 restrictions, and where we luckily have had few cases of the virus. This creates a false sense of security for most, although for me, it creates a terrible sense of foreboding. All it takes is one person to contract the virus and bring it back to our little village, for it to spread like it did in the White House Rose Garden on the day US President Trump and many others contracted the virus because they were not wearing masks or distancing. In that case, they had even been tested before being allowed entrance to the gathering, but the tests had not yet reflected the case(s) of infection. Where I live, of course, there is no daily testing being done.

The general approach on our kibbutz (I don’t mean of ALL people, of course, just MOST) has ranged from flouting the governmental COVID-19 restrictions entirely, to enforcing them to the letter of the law, but not to the spirit —  in other words, trying to find ways to gather as much as possible within the restrictions, or even outside of the restrictions, but without getting caught. It is my feeling that the lockdown is seen mostly as an annoyance or even a controlling dictatorial measure, rather than a necessary means to protect ourselves and help avert a national health crisis.

Unfortunately, the attitude where I live seems to reflect a general denial on the part of so many here in Israel (including government officials who themselves violated the restrictions) of the reality of the suffering that is already in our midst because of this pandemic, and of the catastrophe that awaits us if it is not brought under control. I understand that we all deal with trauma in different ways, and for some, denial is a mechanism for coping. Sometimes it is for me, too – especially when I have more of a luxury to be in denial because the threat is relatively removed.

In this case, however, I do not have that luxury. Fully aware of my body’s limits, I have been laying low since the pandemic started. But Jacob — who was so sure he was invincible that he had convinced me of that illusion, too — was running our errands and being my general non-virtual face to the outside world. Now we are a double-high-risk couple with seven children – a complicated situation during even non-pandemic times. But with the coronavirus spreading quickly in this country, it is beyond scary. It is terrifying!

What a day of mixed emotions it was when both Jacob and the mikveh came home! Even if we had a long road ahead, with his immune system suppressed, Jacob had a good chance now of reaching some kind of remission; but at what price? With no antibodies, how would he fight the coronavirus if he caught it?

Jacob was far from safe. He had come home, but to a village that seemed to not be taking the virus seriously enough in a country unable to get the situation under control. Personally, we could commit to wearing masks and leaving our house as little as possible, and we could even try to get our kids to follow suit; but we could not make others around us to do the same. The situation did not look promising.

At the same time that it was such a relief to have Jacob home and in the embrace of friends who were reaching out to help, in my heart I wanted to say that what would help most would be a community-wide effort to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing. I know many people on our kibbutz consider us one big family, and I know for people less introverted than I, social activity is like air; but we are not one family, and there are safer ways to socialize than to meet in person at a close distance without masks. The scene that looked too much like business-as-usual while we were supposed to be in a lockdown, made me nervous on a personal level and seemed a recipe for disaster on a communal level.

I grabbed my new Sonovia mask and took our dog for a walk. I needed to get some air and clear my head, and I wanted to visit the mikveh in its new location and welcome it home. But when I saw the mikveh sitting there, with the “Danger” sign hanging on the wire fencing surrounding it, I could not help but feel the vulnerability of this fragile relic. The metal cage could only do so much to protect from the natural elements the mikveh we had worked so hard to save from destruction through human hands.

The ancient mikveh in its new home at Kibbutz Hannaton. The sign reads: ‘Danger!’ (courtesy)

As gray clouds hovered above, I knew it was just a matter of time before the rains would begin. We had chosen an ideal spot for the mikveh in terms of proximity to the road (so the crane could reach it) and Hannaton’s unique Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul (so people could view both mikvaot, side-by-side), but the spot was also in the line of the water that would flow from the above hilltop once the skies opened. Soon, on the holiday of Shemini Azeret, Jews around the world would be praying for rain, but if we did not raise money quickly enough to enable us to unwrap the mikveh and place it properly in the ground, all of our work could be for naught.

We are now in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when we leave the imagined security of what we perceive to be our permanent homes and instead sit in clearly temporary huts with shaky walls and porous roofs made of unattached leaves and branches. We read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), whose refrain is “Fleeting, oh fleeting, all is fleeting…” This is a time when we acknowledge the ephemeral nature of life and the integral fragility of being human. As I took in the sight of the mikveh, partially protected and partially exposed, I contemplated how much this mikveh mirrored my own internal state and the actual reality of my family’s situation.

Yes, death is part of life, morbidity and mortality are part of being human, but there is a difference between feeling vulnerable to what is inevitable and unavoidable and feeling vulnerable to human negligence in a situation that could be somewhat controlled — if people acted with more responsibility and consciousness to what is going on around us.

A dreamwork student who had become a friend, too, emailed me the day the mikveh was to arrive, sharing with me her dream of the night before. She had kept abreast of the story of the ancient mikveh and knew it was being transferred that day; but she did not know that Jacob was receiving his infusion at the same time.

Although in her waking life she does not live in Israel, she dreamed that she was walking to Hannaton to see me and the ancient mikveh being delivered. There were many children playing around the newly-transferred mikveh. A young man told her that Jacob and I were not there; we had sailed away to an island in the middle of the ocean to escape Israel’s harsh second wave of COVID-19. She was heartbroken that I missed seeing the mikveh’s delivery, and was relieved that we were safe from harm.

Given the intensity of my waking life during those past several weeks, as well as the fact that the little amount of sleep I was getting was fretful and interrupted, I had not been remembering my own dreams. My friend was dreaming for both of us. Her image of Jacob and me on a deserted island safe from harm will help carry me through this ordeal, come what may.

illustration by Meira Ner-David

When we pray for rain in its proper time and place this year, let us also pray that it and other potential natural threats not catch us unprepared. Let us pray for a growing consciousness in this country and the world of what a dire situation we are now in due to COVID-19, global warming and other threats that may or may not be caused entirely by humans but have certainly been exacerbated by them. It is true that we are clay in the hands of the potter, but that is no reason to throw ourselves into the kiln.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2020. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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