Digging up the Past

The day preceding Tisha B’Av – which is marked annually in the Jewish calendar in order to instill a living memory of the destruction of the Jews and our physical connection to our G-d and our land – I and others were literally covered in the dust of such history. The year is indeed 2013, but we were digging in the ashes of a great fire lit in Jewish and Philistine homes by Sennacherib in 701 BCE. The biblical city of Gath, known today as Tell es-Safi or Tell Tzafit, was destroyed by Sennacherib in his quashing of the rebellion in the area against his Assyrian kingdom. Each July since 1997, more than one hundred archaeologists, students and volunteers gather to excavate this archaeological site under the direction of Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University.

I found myself clearing away the bottom two centimeters of what had been a fifty centimeter layer of black ash, at the behest of Prof. Jeffrey Chadwick of the BYU Jerusalem Center, senior supervisor of Area F which was populated in that ancient period by the Israelites and following the instructions of my daughter, archaeologist Merav Levmore of BIU, who was overseeing the excavations for that particular square. Working in the heat with a small pick-axe, trowel and brush, one is drawn into the dirt. Concentrating on a space the size of a large floor tile I swept away the remains of what was once a large wooden roof beam into a white sack. The ashes were to be carefully transferred to an archaeobotanist for analysis. The hope was that she would be able to determine the type of tree from which the beam was hewn. Less than a meter away, a fellow volunteer lifted a large rock which had apparently fallen during the destruction of the house, cracking a crude oil lamp into several pieces – left lying in the dirt for 2,714 years until we came to find it. This silent testimony, appearing suddenly, of a Jewish presence in this land drowned out all the strident voices denying the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.

But more than speaking to the outside world, the act of digging pushes one to turn inward. Questions arise while brushing sand off of a pottery fragment which was last handled so many many years ago. Were the people who lived in this house, ancestors of mine? How did they escape the fire and rampage of the Assyrian army? Gath is located in Judea, so presumably the inhabitants were from the tribe of Judah and not exiled by Sennacherib. Did they rebuild, birthing future generations – only to witness destruction following destruction?

The stark simplicity of sand, rocks, ashes and surprising finds serve to ground one who digs. The divisiveness endemic to Israeli life melts away in the moist heat of the region. Sharp differences of opinion become meaningless in the face of the awesome length of continuity painstakingly unearthed each minute that passes. No debates or insults are heard through the air, heavy with promise of revealing the past. The longer one digs, the more rooted one becomes. If every Jew were brought to excavate his past for one day alongside others, they would find themselves dusting the dirt of the ages off of one another instead of dredging up dirt about one another. The fires of controversy would be extinguished by the specter of the ancient fires of destruction. The tangible quiet would silence the shrill of internal controversy. For every individual would experience the existence of the ancient collective literally rising from the ashes – with the assistance of a strong, resilient Israeli people embodying their continuity. A living testimony to a living memory.

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel - Israel Region and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; member of Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.