Last week I finished guiding an “Extreme” Taglit-Birthright tour for the “Amazing Israel” provider. This marked my fourteenth year of guiding Birthright groups. One of the most extreme days was the Judean Desert day, which included a tour of Masada. Masada was extreme in many ways. With its unique combination of exotic location, raw natural beauty, interesting archeological remains, and distinctive historical drama Masada is must visit site on every Birthright itinerary. Not only was it the third hike we did in twelve hours it was the experience itself. I never get tired of “doing Masada,” despite having being there well over two hundred times! For most of the participants it is their first time, and I see it through their eyes.
There is a heated debate amongst guides and educators how best to guide Masada. There are those of the “traditionalist” Yigal Yadin/Josephus school who tell it like the nascent Zionist movement wished for the tale to be told, as a foundation myth for Zionist youth looking for inspiration. The tale of death was transformed into Israeli culture as a heroic symbol, a myth, of fighting to the bitter end and a symbol of national renewal. Then there is the Post-Zionist school which is all about “niputs mytosim” (shattering of myths) who ridicule and despise the traditionalist approach. This school of thought questions all of the sacred foundation myths of Zionism. Yael Zerubavel in her book “Recovered Roots, Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition” astutely observes:
While some Israelis regard this process of “demythologization” as a necessary response to the excessive glorification of the nationalist periods of earlier generations, others consider the shattering of myths a subversive act that undermines the sacred foundations of Israeli society”
Somewhere in the middle there is a more pragmatic approach, which I favour, which recognises that, though there are problems with some aspects of Josephus’s narrative and Yadin’s heavy reliance on it, there is a core element of undeniable archeological and historical truth. (See https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-really-happened-on-masada/)
The big question is, what is the message of Masada? The old “Shenit Mazada lo Tipol” (Masada will not fall again) lesson has lost a lot of its appeal. Its militaristic jingoism appealed to an earlier generation. It conjures images of the heroes of the ghettoes valiantly fighting the Nazi juggernaut with no hope of victory, but desperately fighting for their honour and “three lines in a history book.” Masada was seen as a model of active resistance to persecution and a countermodel to the passivity of Exile. This message, popular with the founding generation of Israel, does not resonate among most of today’s youth. Rather, the message I hope to leave my group with is that the people of Israel are very much alive. “Am Yisrael Chai.”
I have distinct memory of visiting the Madanjek death camp near Lublin in Poland with a group of Solomon Schechter seniors as part of their Alexander Muss High School in Israel experience. We were right behind an Israeli high school group. They had left a small Israeli flag in the crematorium next to a memorial candle and a sign in Hebrew which read, “Never-the-less, despite everything, the People of Israel live!”
Having fun with my Amazing Israel “Extreme” Birthright group on Masada.
One of our most moving moments in Masada took place in the two thousand year old synagogue. After I had talked about the oldest Tefilin (phylacteries) in the world found by Yadin in the Judean Desert whilst wrapped in my own Teffilin and held up the Israeli flag to show how David Wolfson was inspired by the blue stripes of the Talit (ritual prayer shawl), similar to the one I was wearing at the time, I mentioned that Yadin found in the geniza (depository for old sacred scrolls) a fragment of a parchment scroll with a quote from Ezekiel 37:12 “The Vision of the Dry Bones:”
Therefore prophesy, and say to them, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel.”
Almost as if the scroll fragment had lain hidden waiting for a representative of the new Jewish people who have returned to their land to reveal the fulfillment of the prophesy. For Yadin Masada was not simply another archeological dig; it was the fulfillment of a national mission. The history, or “our story,” lesson was interesting enough. What was even more fascinating was that in the very same geniza Yadin had found the ancient scroll fragment deposited by Jews two millennia ago a scribe is currently at work writing a new Torah scroll for the IDF. In one moment the group saw our past, present and future bound together and one letter at a time the continuation of thousands of years of tradition.
Scribe writing a Torah for the IDF on Masada. Photo: (c) 2014, T. Book
To conclude our visit we went to the southern extreme of the mountain and, as you can see in the youtube clip below, had a conversation with our ancestors.