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Day 8: February 21 — Israel's Desert
What is it about Masada? No matter how many times I see this amazing site -- an entire town literally hewn out of the side of a steep sloping mountain -- it is always as if it is the first visit all over again. Today was a very long day, but a great day filled with fresh air, exercise, new experiences and things to learn. We left Haifa with our Israeli partners, together with all of our bags packed and under the bus. Our students said their thank yous and goodbyes to their host families and got on the bus at 2 am from Haifa heading toward Masada. Since no one was able to get much sleep during the night, a lot of students slept on the bus. It was dark, and we were driving south where, especially in the middle of the night, there was no traffic. It takes about 3.5 hours to get from Haifa to Masada...it is a winding road through the very dry desert. It is always very warm during the daytime and cold at night. The landscape looked like a painting and as soon as daylight emerged, many types of birds began singing and chirping.
The commanding presence of Masada can be seen from the road -- and the triple-tiered building structures that were cut right out of the rock adds to the power of this mountain and testifies to its singular place in Jewish history. Masada was built by the great King Herod, whose massive building projects are all over the Land of Israel. Masada, meaning "fortress" stands alone as one of the greatest architectural feats that has ever been accomplished. Masada is a symbol of Jewish religious freedom. Built by Herod as a place for his palace and as a secure and safe location away from major cities, Masada was built with careful attention to detail and with a great deal of building savvy and precision. It was built to keep people safe on the mountain top, and was set up to provide everything a community needed while seeking refuge away from the attacking enemies.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews scattered and quickly ran from the destruction in Jerusalem, not wanting to be taken on as slaves to the Romans. A fairly large group of these displaced Jews came to Masada, and decided to use it as the Romans had intended, but for the Jews themselves: as a safe and secure place high up, that would protect them against enemy attacks. The Jews created an entire community on Masada with everything they needed: food, water, storage space for goods, and most of all, a feeling that even though they were far from Jerusalem, they were at Masada to make the point that the Jewish people are not easily destroyed.
The Zealots of Masada were Jewish "freedom fighters." They filled the storage rooms with hundreds of items, some of them perishable and some not. The Jews built Mikvaot (ritual bath facilities), a synagogue, spa and bath facilities, and enough food and supplies to literally last for years. And yet, Masada has a sad story that we discussed with the students as well on the mountain-top this morning. While it took time and many attempts, the Romans eventually figured out a way to climb up the mountain and put an end to the Jews of Masada. The Romans pushed their way up the to the fortress, and prepared for a large-scale siege in which the Jews of Masada would be killed and the Romans would have the Masada fortress to themselves again.
But the Jews at the top had a radical response. Rather than surrender to the Romans the Jewish community of Masada decided that they would die instead of living as slaves to the Romans without their Jewish heritage or identity. The community decided that the male head of each household would kill his wife and children and then the 10 men who were left would draw lots to determine who would kill whom. And the last man would kill himself. The Masada story concludes as the Romans finally made it to the top of Masada -- only to find that all of the Jews had died of their own choosing.
For those who come into this desert wilderness, Masada is a great story of courage and bravery; it is about what happens when Jews stand up in defense of their Judaism at all costs. Today, we ascended the Roman Ramp-- which is mostly stairs/steps on a sharp and angled incline that took us up to the top of the fortress. We explored the excavations that have occurred and that continue to occur now as archaeologists and historians try to gain more insight into this two-thousand year-old story.
We came down Masada via the snake path, which is a slightly longer and more winding and treacherous pathway - to the bottom of the mountain. When we got to the bottom of Masada, we ate snacks, drank water and then got back on the bus to travel to the Dead Sea. From the top of Masada, we drove to the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea. Though it was a bit cool, students enjoyed floating in the salt water of the Dead Sea and learning about what is being done to save the Dead Sea, as it is evaporating at a quick pace. After some sun, football on the rocky beach, and floating in the Dead Sea, we headed for lunch at Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi is a beautiful sight. It is a full oasis in the middle of the desert with a fresh water waterfall and lots of places to hike and appreciate the enormous variety of plants and the sheer beauty of this unusual green and flowering area in the middle of the desert.
After lunch at the Kibbutz, we got back on the bus and drove 1.5 hours to the Hostel in Jerusalem. We were all in much need of a little rest and shower and met one another for dinner tonight. David Strauss from Congregation Beth El Sudbury is also in Israel... and we saw him for a quick visit tonight before dinner. It was terrific to see him in Israel. After dinner we took a short walk to the Mamila Shopping center and came back and are going to sleep!
A couple of quotes:
"Masada was really amazing... painfully amazing, actually. The scenery was beautiful. It was fun and interesting and I learned a lot about the community on Masada."
"I LOVED the Dead Sea. It was so cool to float on the water and to get a little bit of sun in February."
Rabbi Lisa S. Eiduson
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