No trip to Israel is ever complete without a visit to Masada. Whether you climb the Snake Path or the Roman Ramp, or ascend by cable car, the effect of spending a few hours on the summit absorbing the sheer enormity of Masada’s story is nothing short of transcendent. Yom Haatzmaut is a particularly fitting day to reflect on how, even in its antiquity, Masada is so deeply connected to the psyche and culture of today’s modern State of Israel.
Masada is so much more than just another example on a long list of King Herod’s brilliant architectural achievements. Because of what happened there in 73 C.E., Masada might be the most iconic and well storied symbol of inspirational courage and gritty resolve for Israelis. The story, as documented by chronicled by Roman captive and historian Flavius Josephus, makes Masada a vital pilgrimage destination. While the writings of the former Jewish rebel leader originally known as Yosef ben Matityahu are said by some to suffer from substantial poetic embellishment, the Masada story is far too well-engrained in Israel’s founding mythology to contradict or debunk it with much enthusiasm.
The list of places that attract me across the breathtakingly diverse landscape of the State of Israel is very long, but Masada is inevitably the top draw for me. I first climbed Masada in 1979. Since then, I’ve probably summited the mountain fortress at least a dozen times. As a storyteller by profession, I love a good story, and the siege of Masada certainly qualifies as a mesmerizing story that compels each of us to ask, “What would I have done had I been there, back then?”
After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Masada became the last refuge for Jewish Siccarii Jerusalemites, fugitive outlaw rebels against the Roman Empire. Following some two years of futile and fatal attempts to reconquer Masada via the main access route (today’s Snake Path), the Roman Legion built a siege ramp up the back side of the mountain. On May 2, 73 C.E., during a major offensive by the Roman army on the walls of Masada, the 960 Jewish zealots under the command of Siccarii leader Eleazarben Ya’ir chose to commit mass suicide rather than to perish or face enslavement at the hands of the Romans.
Incited by Eleazar, each man killed his wife and children and was then killed by the next man in line. The last surviving men drew lots and ten were selected to kill the others. Eventually, one of the ten was chosen to kill the other nine and then commit suicide. They burned their belongings but left their food behind so that the Romans would know that they had not perished of hunger, but rather of their own free will.
This singular, dramatic story was obscure for centuries, but Masada evolved to became a powerful ideological symbol for the nation-building process of modern Israel and the formation of a rugged new Jewish identity. It has been a pilgrimage destination for generations of Zionists and for Israeli soldiers who for a time were sworn in here, their induction oath ending with the heroic declaration, “Masada shall never fall again.” Yes, Israel has won all its wars. But the Masada mentality teaches that if it ever loses one single war, Jews will find themselves at a Masada moment once again.
As a recording artist and songwriter, I have been intrigued for years by Masada’s rich symbolism and distinct human drama. It is not rare for soldiers to turn to song just before going off to war (including the recent example of Gendry the blacksmith singing “Jenny’s Song” the night before the Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones S8E2). In this spirit, I composed a pre-battle song simply called “Masada.” The song and on-location video are written and sung from the lonely perspective of the last Jewish Zealot standing as he confronts the enormity of what is about to transpire.
The Siccarii singer recounts the horrific events leading to the rebel community’s collective demise, expressing his overwhelming sense of foreboding as it becomes clear that Masada’s walls will are about be breached by the Roman legion. His anthemic declaration that he will “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” conveys the essence of just how very pyrrhic the Roman’s victory over the rebels will be. The song and video also include what I believe to be the first ever instance of a shofar appearing in a rock song. As Yom Haatzmaut approaches, I share “Masada” with you, with the hope that you’ll be as inspired as I am.
Masada ©2019 Stephen A Schuster
Imperial forces high on horses
All the King’s men
No remorse, we’ve run our course
As far as we can
When kingdom-come is my crusade
I bear the burden of the blade
To my misfortune
My whole portion I will commend
Barbarian legions burning beacons
Deep in the night
Tried for treason, rhyme nor reason
Dead to all rights
Scarlett armies at the gate
The hour is tragically late
Hungry and weak
I turn my cheek and
Draw the knife
And I will render unto Caesar
What is Caesar’s
Surrender only to the calling
If I’m the last to take a bow
My task is holier than thou
And all the walls of Rome
Won’t stop me now
Blood and fire
Confront the condemned
Left to defend
Draw the straws and cast the die
Make it fast before they cry
By my command
This land will
Never tumble again