Years ago, a favorite family vacation spot was the Outer Banks, North Carolina. In good weather the water is a clear blue-green and warm. The sand is hot. The sky is clear. The kids and I, once we arrived at our destination, would gather our paraphernalia, walk over a sand dune to the beach, spread out our blankets, set up our umbrellas and lie around or play in the waves all day long. The beach is where we could be by ourselves, relax, be away from the news, the phone, the computer and other distractions. Today, of course, our distractions travel with us, but that is another story.
My absolute favorite activity was to stroll along the sand with waves nipping at my feet looking for seashells which had washed ashore. Through the years I acquired quite a collection. I always looked for the most perfect, most colorful, most different, most brilliant seashells I could find. I would take only the best and prettiest of shells. But one year, that changed.
Early one morning, while strolling along the beach at water’s edge, I spotted a very large conch shell some distance away. The shell was upside down so I first noticed its beautiful colors– sunrise colors—marbling its inside. Also its size was much larger than seashells generally found on those shores. What a find! But there was a problem with this shell. As I reached it and picked it up, I discovered that this gorgeous shell had a large hole in it. Normally I would reject a flawed shell such as this one. However, as I turned the shell over in my hand, ran my fingers over its surface, and studied its contours, I began to imagine the life of this shell, more specifically, the life of the conch which once inhabited this shell. Back in elementary school I had learned that shells are actually homes of animals. They are the strong outer protection of very vulnerable, soft creatures which live within.
As I gazed at the shell I held in my hand, I thought about the purpose of that shell, and how it provided shelter for the life within it. The shell protected the inner self from predators. It was carried with the tides from briny depths to sunny beaches. In the course of its lifetime this conch saw good weather. The ocean supplied food in abundance and salt water necessary for its survival. There were peaceful, calm, sunny days and quiet, star-filled, moon-lit nights. This conch experienced a lot of good in life. But that is not all.
The conch had been washed ashore, and as you may know, with the tide’s ebb and flow waves pound the beach– going out and coming in. This conch shell lying on that beach was being pounded and broken in places by the waves which had once provided its sustenance.
Something happened to this shell in the process of living. Not only had it seen tranquil times, but it had also been tossed about on rough seas. At times it dove deep. At times it floated shallow. And in all that time, slowly, methodically, this shell was being smoothed and polished. A different kind of beauty emerged in the process, something not so obvious with younger more perfectly formed shells. This shell had character. I saw beautiful colors. I saw a home. I saw protection. It took life to bring out its complicated nuances, its depth, its very real self.
After that experience, I began to look for shells in a different way. No longer did the young, flawless shells appeal to me as before. They are beautiful in their own way, but I discovered I needed to know the lessons of those shells which, too, had weathered many storms. Since that day, my collection has come to include shells of all ages, sizes and shapes. Some are broken, some are worn, some have beautiful colors, some are drab. All have done their job of protecting life.
It strikes me that G-d has provided the means for us to survive the storms of this life, too. Granted, our shells are different than that of the conch. But we, too, will be nourished, nurtured, and pounded by life. We may find that life at some point in time washes us up on the shores where the waves will pound us and our beliefs will be shaken to the core. Would that our shell would protect us from pain. Would that our shell would prevent sorrow. Would that our shell would create a peaceful, harmonious environment within which to live at all times, that it would always remain intact.
We may feel worn, fractured, cracked. But I am convinced, that as with the conch shell I found that day at the shore, the shell that G-d has provided to protect and guide us does do its job. Our shell is Torah. Within the Torah we discover how to live, how to protect ourselves, how to be thankful for the good and prayerful when in pain. Most importantly, Torah reveals to us how we are to relate to each other and to G-d. When we are shattered, Torah reminds us that G-d is still with us, still our one and only G-d. When in times of plenty, we are reminded who has provided that plenty. In residing in this shell provided by G-d, in abiding by the Torah, in heeding the guidance of its words, our inner selves begin to emerge: selves of compassion, selves not so quick to judge the vulnerabilities of others, selves which have become wise with age, selves which are strong for having weathered many storms, selves that are holy, selves which reflect the very image of G-d.
If you go to the seashore, keep your eyes and spirit open. You may see many seashells. Undoubtedly, most will be broken. You will see shells which are beautiful to look at, perfectly formed. You will see shells which are functional–they hold water, or healing ointment. You will see shells that are hardly shells at all. They have been pounded into shards, multi-colored slivers of membrane through which the light shines for others to see. As with those shells, we too will be sustained, even if we are broken in places. G-d’s presence is not only with us through all of life; G-d’s presence is around us, in us, over us and under us. G-d has provided the Torah as our shell, and in residing in that shell, beauty and wonder shine forth as a beacon for others who are on this journey, too. For it is in G-d that we find strength, beauty, and wisdom to weather life’s storms and enjoy life’s blessings.