I stepped onto an emotional roller coaster on October 18th. In the morning I was at the birth of my newest granddaughter, Tzion Cherut, in Jerusalem. Early evening, still walking on air, I read with shock of the death of Dr. Adam Zertal, my favorite archaeologist.
It’s not hard to explain why I was so taken with Adam (what he like to be called; my first name just helped the connection). His personal story was steeped in bravery. So severely injured in Sinai during the ’73 War that he walked with crutches for the rest of his life, he nonetheless continued with archaeology studies and hence stepped into a world of science and research that in the Middle East is often about neither.
He decided to focus on the allotment of the Biblical tribe of Menashe, the area known in modern parlance as the Northern Shomron and Jordan Valley. Liberated in its west of the Jordan configuration by Israel during the ’67 Six Day War, it was a area that few had dared tread or study.
Feeling that regional context was critically important to understanding individual sites, Adam and his team literally walked – or hobbled- across the Land. His work is too extensive to detail here- but his accidental discovery on Mount Eival of Joshua’s Altar was groundbreaking as was his re-identification of Mount Kabir as the original Mount Gerizim. (Read ‘A Nation is Born’ ). His work wasn’t accepted by many in the field, although they’re hard pressed to give a reasonable alternate explanation of why only bones of kosher animals are buried in a early Iron Age cultic site.
As I am not an archaeologist, just a dedicated Israeli tour guide who voraciously studies history, Tanach, Jewish thought and current events, I don’t want to delve here into the controversies that surrounded him. Instead, I want to pay personal homage to a brave, modest and intrepid man who wasn’t afraid to take on the sacred cows on either side of an issue, and whose open-mindedness, insights and intelligence impacted my own life’s work tremendously.
Despite living on staunchly secular Kibbutz Ein Shemer, Adam came to believe in the veracity of the book of Joshua and the original national conquest of the mountain highlands as written. His fieldwork earned him the title “the settlers’ archaeologist’, and while not usually offended he was nonplussed. It was about the science, reading the remnants of communities settled long ago, not making political claims and boosting egos. He would go toe to toe with people on any side who were unable to let go of their opinions, try to think out of the box or consider something new.
What a joy it was last year to see him at Yeshivat Har Etzion along with Tanach expert Rav Yoel bin Nun. Two very different men who devoted their lives to learning and passionately teaching about their peoples’ connection to its Land, one with expertise on the ground, the other from the Biblical texts. The mutual respect, collaboration and friendship was palpable to all. What a privilege, too, to interview him a by phone a few months ago on my radio show Rejuvenation, although sadly he wasn’t well enough to come to the studio.
It was on a trip to the Jordan Valley that I heard from him what I made the title of this piece. We had visited the foot shaped enclosure behind Moshav Argaman, one of nearly a dozen that he felt were the Gilgalim, the ritual sites of Aliya Leregel– translated as pilgrimage but literally “to the foot”. Aerial photos had kicked off an entire theory of his as to where and how we worshipped during our first years as a nation in our Land and how they proved a previous trek from and sojourn in Egypt. (Too much info for here but it will knock your socks off when you learn it.) After a lively discussion of current and ancient events I asked him why it was so difficult to get the recognition he deserved for his vast research and what it offered on so many levels. ‘They [well known archaeologists] are famous for their [often Biblically critical and hence politically correct] work” Adam said with a rueful grin. “And who am I, just a shmendrik on crutches.”
He was anything but. May his work inspire others to greatness and may he soon- now tragically posthumously- earn the accolades so richly deserved in life. From Adam to Adam there were few like Adam. We lost him too early. Rest in peace, Dr. Adam Zertal. And thank you.