Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Let snails be our teachers as we consider emerging

Illustration by Meira Ner-David

As the restrictions here in Israel relax and people begin to return, step by step, to the roads, to work, to the stores that are slowly re-opening, to gathering in groups (limited in number, yet still groups and still gathering), I find my nerves upset, my fears increasing.

I have been sheltering in place at home in Hannaton – a tiny kibbutz within a small yishuv in Galilee — with my partner, Jacob, and six of our seven children, ranging in age from 24 to 9. Because I live with a degenerative genetic neuro-muscular disease — a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD — that affects various of my muscles, including some involved with breathing, my doctor advised me not to leave the house and to minimize as much as possible contact with others.

I have been frightened of contracting the virus, but I have felt safe enough, since the government’s restrictions limited my family’s goings-and-comings and mixing with others. But as soon as Passover ended, the government began talking about lifting the restrictions; and this week this plan went into effect.

Is now really the time to be easing up the restrictions? As long as there is no vaccine for COVID-19, why wouldn’t the virus simply start spreading as quickly as it was before? And if it does, can an entire country be reined back in once it has been let loose after being confined for this long? 

These questions have been on my mind and heart since Passover ended and cabin fever has been in the air. Which is just when snails started to show up in my life in abundant and usual ways.

In Numbers 12:16 it says: “I, Adonai, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams.” I am a spiritual director/counselor, with specialty training to work with dreams and nature as a window to the soul. I do this work with others, and I apply what I have learned in my own spiritual life as a window to my own soul.

I keep a journal of dreams I remember when waking. I also pay attention to the natural world. Whether we call it God, our higher self, our unconscious, or our inner voice, there is communication from a deeper and/or higher place when we dream, as well as when we open ourselves to the wonder of the natural world.

We dream several times a night, but we only remember some; even within those dreams, only certain images stick with us. Similarly, there is so much surrounding us, but only certain things catch our eyes at specific times. If we lean into those dream and waking elements, there are messages for us there.

The natural world is God’s (or the Spirit of the Universe’s) dreamscape in which we – humans, plants and animals alike – connect and play a part. If God can speak to us in dreams, why not through Creation? Like with an especially vivid or recurring dream calling out to be understood, Snail was calling for my attention, and it was up to me to observe, listen and try to understand.

First it was the snails who appeared one day on the walls of the one-lane natural swimming pool in my side yard, where I swim daily. Tens of them, in all shapes and sizes! I swam back and forth, watching Snail and trying to discern her message to me. But it was not clear.

Then my daughter, who is an artist and was home from the army, came to me with a series of snail drawings she had been working on, inspired by the lockdown. Renditions of people sheltering in place in their own private snail shells, each looking self-contained and content in their isolated solitude.

This snail synchronicity did not escape me. I felt an opening to some clarity. As I recalled the slugs who came to visit last year around this time with their own message, the following poem emerged:

THE SECOND COMING

I.

This time last year

Oh, snail-without-a-shell

You came to preach me freedom.

“Don’t be afraid to break loose,”

You said,

As you slithered past.

Hydrating yourself,

Contained by your own inner shell —

You brought me to my knees.

I took your message to heart,

listened to my inner voice,

And shed my outer shell.

Ah…

the weight lifted from my shoulders,

the space to move without contorting

to a shape already defined by ways and rules.

II.

Now you’ve returned,

My friend.

With a house on your back.

Can a shell once discarded

become reattached?

Are there times

an inner shell is not enough?

When we need that extra layer of protection?

Are there times we have no choice

But to curtail our freedom for our own —

And a greater — good?

Or is freedom an illusion,

Like permanence?

Like control?

“Feel your way forward!” you whisper,

As you find your way, tentatively,

With those slimy antlers.

Leaving me

like your mucus

in your wake.

III.

Again, I am on my knees,

Face to the earth

Arms stretched forward.

Wondering what form you will take

When you return.

Next year’s teacher.

Or is the blind

Just

leading the blind?

***

Later that day, my youngest daughter came to me with a lemon-sized snail shell in her hand. She said she had found it in our dog’s mouth, and that she suspected the dog had eaten the snail. Then, guess what I found in my mouth that night while eating my salad at dinner: a tiny snail! And I had almost eaten it.

Was Snail trying to warn me? There is still danger out there. Don’t be seduced into thinking this is over. Don’t be lured into coming out of your shell too soon.  

The next day, my older daughter, who had gone back to the army, sent me a new addition to her snail series. It was of a backpacker with a snail shell in lieu of a knapsack, looking back into the horizon. Like a recurring dream that does not stop coming until you pay attention, Snail was not going to leave me alone until I heard her message loud and clear.

This drawing evoked for me Bohemian Woman, who sits on my personal Wisdom Council (a collection of images from my dreams and waking experiences, especially in nature, who remind me of my own inner wisdom). She appeared to me first in a dream, with a knapsack on her back, chanting “I once had a head, I once had a head,” as she walks off into the horizon. When I worked the dream, I understood her message: live more from the heart, less from the head. Bohemian Woman is the free spirit in me.

Now, here she was appearing to me with a shell on her back instead of a pack. Like you wrote in your poem, she was telling me, there are times when an inner shell is not enough. There are times when you need to let your head set boundaries to what your heart desires.

As much as I would like to go back to my life as it was, I personally will not be rushing out of my shell. In fact, as others rush out of their shells, I may need to retreat even further back into my own.

I could keep Snail’s message to myself, but I am not convinced it was meant only for me. Of course we all want freedom. But sometimes we need to recognize life’s limitations, acknowledge the consequences of our self-destructive actions, and set boundaries to our freedom for our own good.

We cannot just wish this virus or our reality away. And even if we could – or if a vaccine is created so that the virus is no longer a threat — is returning to how things were really what is best for us?

We may not have wished for society as we knew it to fall apart, but it did. Should our goal now be to revive a society that was on its way towards self-destruction? Or should we as individuals and as a collective be taking this time to acknowledge our mistakes, re-evaluate our priorities, and think carefully and with eyes open about how we want to rebuild our society before rushing back into more of the same?

These times call for a strong inner shell as well as an outer one, for mustering up all of our inner resources and strength to push through this for as long as it takes until it is safe to come out again, and until we have a clear plan as to  how we want the world to look when we do come out — and not a moment sooner.

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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