My husband and I recently spent a Shabbat with our married daughter, Naama, in Atzmona, a fervently religious community in Gush Katif that boasts a magnificent plant nursery -- one of the largest in Israel. It is also home to a much in demand pre-army yeshiva program, most of whose students become officers in combat units. Several years ago the yeshiva was struck by heartbreak when terrorists infiltrated the community and five yeshiva students were murdered while learning Torah in the Beit Midrash, study hall.
Along the pathway leading to our daughter's house are exquisite, yellow desert flowers, bursting boldly out of the sand. I am always amazed by the brightness and strength of these flowers. The paucity of water does not keep them from spreading their petals wide and reaching toward the sun.
Naama's home is small and the Atzmona hospitality is legendary, so our sleeping quarters were at the home of a young couple who had gone away for Shabbat. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the house were snapshots propped up on the telephone shelf, across from the entrance door. They were of Mrs. Dena Horowitz of Kiryat Arba, who, together with her husband Rabbi Eli, was killed by terrorists who burst into their home on a Friday night. The Horowitz's were shot while sitting at their Shabbat table, singing zmirot, Shabbat songs. I gathered that Dena had been the high school teacher of our hostess.
The spotless little house, like that of many young couples in Atzmona, was filled with scholarly books, including many by Rav Kook. The pictures on the wall were of Jewish sages and scenic views of Israel. Silky tablecloths and flowers welcomed the Sabbath. We live on such a roller coaster, I thought. Joy and mourning. Faith and determination.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a rooster crowing. I was a little surprised that a rooster, who, I thought, wakes in tandem with the morning star, was crowing at 3:00 AM. Well, I thought, what do I, a city girl, know? But when he was still crowing at seven o'clock, I realized he was just a very enthusiastic (or very neurotic) rooster.
When I laughed about it later with my daughter, she said, "Oh, it belongs to a family that lives next to your hosts. They created a petting zoo for the local children. I guess we're so used to it, we don't hear it anymore."
I expected to catch up on my sleep Shabbat afternoon, when I tried to fall asleep reading Israel: Life in the Shadow of Terror published by Aish.com. My husband was reading a biography about Hillel Unsdorfer, the soldier whose photograph became famous in 1973, when he crossed the Suez Canal carrying a Sefer Torah during the Yom Kippur War. Tragically, he had survived his ordeal as a prisoner of war in Egypt only to die some years later in a traffic accident.
It occurred to me that maybe, for relaxation, we could find lighter reading material for a Shabbat afternoon, like murder mysteries.
At 2 PM the crowing began again.
While I covered my head with the pillow and tried to fall asleep, my husband commented that the rooster obviously had time issues. After a while, he asked me, "Do you hear that?"
"What is it, the rooster again?" I mumbled.
It was shooting. It sounded close. "Don't worry," he said, "It's ours. And it sounds closer than it is because we're in the desert; there is nothing to block the sound."
I just trusted that after fighting in two wars and doing 25 years of active reserve duty, he must know what he was talking about, but after listening for a few seconds, all I could say was, "I'd rather hear the rooster."
When I mentioned the shooting to Naama, she said, "I guess we're so used to it, we hardly hear it anymore."
A few weeks later, I was visiting my friend, Shira, in Efrat and saw a beautiful painting of three roosters on her wall. "That's so unusual," I commented, "a painting of roosters!"
"Well," she said, "you know, of course, that roosters are a symbol of geula -- redemption."
I was stunned by the discovery. "Okay, now I get it," I said. "Now I understand why roosters are crowing in Atzmona."
Shira's mother, Gabby Finkelstein, who made aliya from New York about 24 years ago, joined our conversation and added, "When we were little, our parents used to sing a song about a rooster to us, in Hungarian. It's called 'Solo kukush mar' and the words are, 'The loan rooster is singing, when will the time come already? When his feet turn yellow and his lips turn green, that's when it will be. The Beit Hamikdash [the Holy Temple] will be built and Zion will be filled, that's when it [redemption] will be.' "
The story of the rooster and redemption moved in and out of my consciousness for a while, and then, last week, I was in Gush Katif again, preparing for the weekly Creative Writing class I give to a group of women there. A little boy asked me for a short private session before the women's class. He was nine years old and he wanted me to read his story.
It was about how he loves to go to the sea in Gush Katif, dig a hole on the shore and cover himself in sand. "And then," he wrote, "I brush off the sand and run into the ocean. I struggle with the waves, until they rush back to where they have come from."
"Then," he told me, "I swim out into the sea."
"This is beautiful," I said to him.
"What should I write about for next time?" he asked.
"How about your name?" I said. "What does your name mean?"
His bright, dark eyes sparkled. "My name is Nerya," he said. "Light of God. It means that I should give light."
Maybe the rooster crows at 3AM because he knows something we don't, that the light is there, but we don't yet see it.
I love those evenings in Gush Katif. I love the wide expanses of grass and trees blooming along side the dunes. I love the sunsets unmarred by high-rise buildings. I love the gentleness of the people. Nerya and I have set up a weekly date, and now that I sleep at Naama's, after the women's writing class, I have grown used to hearing strange noises at night. I share a room with my toddler granddaughters. I am still awakened by the sounds of occasional gunfire from distant Rafiah, but they sleep through it peacefully, just as I grew up sleeping peacefully through the sounds of robins singing, and maple branches brushing against my window.
I think about the crowing that disturbed my Shabbat afternoon, and I think about the first of the morning blessings, "Blessed be You, or Lord, who has given the rooster the ability to differentiate between day and night."
Maybe the rooster crows at 3AM because he knows something we don't, that the light is there, but we don't yet see it. That is what we pray for in the morning blessing -- for our own ability to distinguish between light and darkness, between good and evil, between dawn and midnight.
I don't know when redemption will come, but I think I know where some of the signs are hiding.
They are in the crowing of a rooster, in the wonder of a golden desert flower, in the soft breathing of little girls in the night, and in the black-eyed smile of a child of light, who loves the sand and the sea.