I don't know how it happened.
This Shabbos, in the early hours of the morning I found I had a large brown ugly cockroach taped onto the inside of my left hand, with its jaws embedded into my palm. It looked a bit like the cockroaches I remembered killing with a wooden bat when they infested a house in France I was staying in years ago. But I knew this was definitely a Tel-Aviv cockroach.
The worst cockroach experience I ever had was in my cousin Max's flat on Rothschild Boulevard, It was the day after I arrived in Tel-Aviv for my first visit after an absence of thirty-three years. Groggy after an overnight flight, with everyone else still asleep, I decided to take a shower. I crept into the shower room with the clothes I was going to change into and folded them and my nightclothes under the large towel I'd been given, to stop them getting wet.
I opened the shower enclosure and stepped in. Something huge and ugly jumped off the top of the shower rail. It brushed my face in its flight, it made a horribly clicking and whirring sound, and it landed on the towel and pile of clothes and burrowed into it. I yelled with shock and horror and leapt back about three feet.
I was snookered. There was no way I was going to touch that towel and pile of clothes. I'd seen it was about six inches long, fat and grotesque looking. I didn't know cockroaches could get that big. I didn't want to see it again and the thought that it had touched my cheek in its flight was making me feel absolutely sick.
There were no more towels in the room. I didn't know where any others might be found. I had the choice of going to wake my then nine year old daughter, my eighty two year old male cousin or going out of the flat and downstairs to his daughter's flat. The solution was obviously so traumatic that I can't remember exactly what I did. I do remember that in the end I managed to get Dafna to come up and help me out, and she was tactful and understanding in how she dealt with it. She told me she always had to deal with any cockroaches her husband found, because he couldn't. Her husband rides a big macho motor bike, was once a long distance trucker (before he became an architect), spent years serving as target practice for Hezbollah militia on the northern border, and rode with the IDF invasion force into Lebanon in 1982.
Well, it was no good asking her to help this Shabbos morning, because she was 2,500 miles away, even though this was a Tel-Aviv cockroach. I yelled and shouted for people I could see to help me. They had priorities of their own, and were pretty indifferent to my pain and horror.
There was only one way. I had to sort it myself. So I woke myself up.
It was six am. The warmth of summer, that had stayed so long into September, had completely gone. Denial was useless. It was really chilly. The sky was leaden grey. This was autumn. And I felt rotten, as if I had a hangover, which is something I haven't experienced since I was in my early twenties. I was shocked and miserable. I never had something like this happen on a Shabbos, since I became observant. I mean, when I light those candles, peace descends. And it doesn't go away. Except this Shabbos.
Oh, I thought. Is it going to be that sidra [Torah reading] where we read the curses that sound just like a day in the life of the Holocaust? No, actually. That's next week.
I kept checking my palm to make sure the cockroach really wasn't there. And by the time I got up I had re-entered the world of rationality enough to know that cockroaches don't bite and don't latch themselves onto your palm. And enough to know there was a message in this nightmare somewhere. I think it had to do with not letting the indifference of others stop you from doing things you need to do yourself.
And although it stayed cold and miserable looking I got myself to shul and began to take pleasure in the service, as I always do. The woman sitting nearest me kept leaning over to say friendly things, in that kind, modest way of hers. I could even see the sun was beginning to reappear. I was doing my usual thing of reading the texts we read or say as if they were poetry or philosophy. Both the siddur [prayerbook] and Chumash [Torah and prophets readings] are always full of passages that astonish me with their beauty and profundity. And I turned a page of the day's readings, and this leapt out at me. Only not like the cockroach of 1995. This was something else.
For a small moment have I forsaken thee;
But with great compassion shall I gather thee.
In a little wrath I hid My face from thee for a moment;
But with everlasting kindness will I have compassion on thee,
Isaiah 54, 7-8
OK, I thought. There's a message here. And I felt I got the message.
I felt much better. It stayed cold that day. But the nightmare had passed, and I felt calm, whole and optimistic again. On Saturday night, I put the heating on for the first time. But by Sunday morning, it was so warm, I turned it off again. And it's stayed surprisingly warm and pleasant since.
On Monday night, I was having yet another of my experiences of talking with someone Jewish who is held back from living an even more Jewish life by "not believing". I related this nightmare story and how I was comforted out of it by the power of what was in those verses from Isaiah. And I said that I thought "believing" for me was not so obvious as "I pray because I believe in X". It is because of the cumulative saturation of spending years doing the prayers, the discipline of practice and the reading anyway, since the time I still defined myself as "not religious". They have embedded themselves into me in a way that has more power to seize me, move me, touch me, comfort me and influence me than the greatest poetry, than the most moving music, than any other cultural experience I can think of. And maybe that is some of what "believing in" is all about.