Yehonatan Ben Israel

The Hidden Holiness of Tel Megido

“See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances, as Hashem my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the land to which you come to possess it. You shall safeguard them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people as this great nation!'” –Deuteronomy 4:5-6

“He (G-d) said: It was insufficient that you be a servant for Me (only) to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the ruins of Israel; I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth.” –Isaiah 49:6

“These are the kings of the land whom Joshua and the descendants of Israel smote on the western side of the Jordan… the king of Megido…” –Joshua 12:7, 21

The ultimate mission of the nation of Israel is to show the world Who G-d is. This can be seen in the above verse, as well as others that we through Torah observance and connection to Hashem, are to guide the world towards more connection. In the Ramchal’s book, The Way of Hashem, we are given a spiritual history of what went wrong with the world, how and why Israel was chosen and separated from the rest of the world, and what Israel’s ultimate mission in the world is. To paraphrase, Ramchal’s approach is of an extremely spiritual perspective, stating that in end, the nations of the world will attach themselves to Israel in connecting to Hashem. It’s a very deep, spiritual read from what could only be taken as an “other worldly” perspective.

And yet, in the meantime, we are still to be a light unto the nations. Psalm 67, written by Moses and later rediscovered by King David (According to Artscroll commentary) gives a fantastic outline of the mission of the nation of Israel. Stating almost exactly what the verse from I says–that G-d will shine His face on us, and then all the nations will know who Hashem is and run after Him. Thus, I want to start this blog with a question: If the nation of Israel is to be a “light unto the nations,” how do we do it? What exactly are the logistics? What does that even mean? OK, so we know that at the “end of time,” and/or days of Mashiach that everything will be made clear, but in the meantime we still have a mission here on earth to be a “light unto the nations,” otherwise, there never would have been a need for us to even conquer the land of Canaan in the first place.

The land of Israel the argument can strongly be made, was in the time of Tanach and is indeed today, both an international geopolitical state, as well as a geospiritual entity. It was a place for everyone to see. One could even argue that the ancient land of Israel in the time of the Tanach was “under the microscope,” very much so as it is today. That being the case, how did we have an ability to influence the world? What did we do? What would have been our strategy in being a light unto the nations?

OK, so we certainly have Jerusalem, the great spiritual powerhouse that is the Temple Mount. In its time in the ancient Middle East, whether we are speaking of the First Temple or the Second, its beauty was magnificent. I believe we cannot imagine the spiritual uplifting of the heart and soul that was performed through the sacrificial service. The choirs and symphonies of the Levites were beautiful. The smell of the incense that came from inside the Temple itself was said to have driven people to thoughts of Teshuva and goodness for fellow man, in what we could call a “spiritual aroma therapy.”  The spiritual heights that the temple service took people was nothing short of incredible. It was a place of both physical acts and deep spiritual meditation, a place of both individual prayer to Above and warm brotherhood among each other below. (Of course it should be noted that despite all of this, the Temple was destroyed due to the failings of the nation. In short, this was because to rise in spiritual greatness is also to be susceptible to great temptation towards darkness. This is always the challenge.) Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem for those who partook in its activities was literally “Heaven on earth.”

And yet, for those on the outside, perhaps it was difficult to grasp what was so special about it. Most non-Israelis throughout the Middle East when asked about the temple in Jerusalem probably would have said something along the lines of, “OK, so it’s a beautiful piece of architecture for religious practice. My country also has a beautiful temple…” Egypt, Phoenicia, and Syria to name only a few all had temples that illustrated the great architectural feats of its people in which they also worshipped their own deities. What could possibly draw any of the nations to the temple in Jerusalem? Moreover, Jerusalem was located deep in the hill country of the region. Why go through the extra inconvenience to make a journey on rough terrain?

In a way then, the “light unto the nations” that was Jerusalem was hidden from the outside eye.

Thus, despite what we might call Judaism’s fantastic uniqueness in the world (For all of those who might believe it anyway), most people when looking at the nation of Israel in ancient times would have, in their own eyes, simply seen the temple in Jerusalem as “just another temple,” Judaism as “just another religion,” and Israel as “just another nation” in the Middle East–very much as Israel and Judaism are seen in the world today for those who wouldn’t take the trouble to delve deeper and ask questions. We must ask then–if Israel truly was/is a unique light unto the nations whose mission was/is to bring redemption and closeness to G-d, how would they have broken past the barrier? Again, what was our PR strategy?

I believe the answer to be as conceptually relevant in the past as it is still in the present. And this is the role that I believe that Tel Megido played back in its time.

Located just east of the modern city Israeli city of Haifa and along the ancient trade route of the Via Maris, the ancient city of Megido was a scene of both battles and economic trade. Up until the dominance of the Assyrian Empire in roughly 721 B.C.E. it was a city that was a pivotal point for international trade between the empires of Mesopotamia (Located in modern Iraq) and Egypt. The city stood almost as a type of “World Trade Center” in the Middle East, as a converging point for primary trade routes.

When we look at the city of Megido, and indeed the very land of Israel itself in ancient and arguably modern times, we find a place that is literally in the center of everything. One could not rule over the city of Megido without engaging in an elaborate network of international trade throughout the Middle East. Without elaborating too much on the details of ancient trade routes (That’s for another blog!), Megido’s international network in modern terms would have spanned from Sudan and Ethiopia, to Turkey, to Iran and perhaps even beyond. For one city in the ancient Middle East, that a gigantic network!

Today, Megido’s grandeur lies in complete ruins, though any lover of history would be in awe of the remains of its ancient structures that can still be seen today. Yet, as a major city in the land of Israel, what sort of spiritual qualities can we take away from it? OK, so it’s a major economic hub, an ancient “world trade center.” What would make it holy?

Before I go further into the significance of Tel Megido, I want to give a quick personal anecdote. It’s been a few years now, but I still remember what it was like to work as a corrections officer in Nashville. One of the things that anyone who works in the penitentiary learns is that sometimes there is a certain challenge to keep things at a professional level with inmates. Indeed, I remember not so few times when we’d hear about an officer or nurse crossing that line and doing something with an inmate that would get them fired, or even arrested. Sometimes they would even be individuals that we never would have expected. As I look back on those times, I can say that the reason for this challenge was because we were working not only 8-hour shifts, but depending on what schedule changes took place, the shifts could be ten, twelve, or even sixteen hours overtime to compensate for lack of available staff. Eventually I knew that I’d be developing relationships with the inmates just simply because of the long working hours I was going to have–whether I even liked it or not. But I also knew that it was up to me as to how far I would let it go. Thankfully, I never allowed myself to cross that line from professional to personal and allow myself to get manipulated.

Though the above paragraph may strike the reader as somewhat random, I write this to simply demonstrate a very basic psychological fact: human beings by nature are extremely relationship oriented. Thus, if it’s so easy to engage in personal relationships between inmates and guards when both are usually on opposing sides per se, how much more so is it easy to engage in personal relationships within economic agreements? Moreover, relationships–however much we may or may not like it–have a great influence on us in general.

Hence when we approach Megido in this light, we begin to see something different. OK, so Megido was certainly an economic hub for international trade in it’s time for sure! But not only that–Megido was a place of international connection! When one nation shakes hands with another in a business deal, there is going to be more than just a business deal. There will be exposure to one another. Have you ever heard the saying that most business decisions take place more on the golf course than the board room? That’s because even on some level, business is about rapport and relationship! Conversation, exchanging of ideas and opinions, intercultural influence, and most important of all, ideological influence would have happened in an environment such as the ancient city of Megido.

Indeed, the city of Megido was a city that could put the nation of Israel in a vulnerable position to outside temptation and a sphere of unhealthy influences, but it was also a place in which the nation of Israel had a fantastic potential to influence the world around her!

Of course, anyone who knows anything about Judaism, knows that it is not a religion that like Christianity and Islam, believes in universal conversion. (Indeed, for my own personal story towards Judaism, this was a concept that attracted me to Judaism!) Yet, as the verse quoted at the beginning of this blog points out, we the nation of Israel are to be a “light unto the nations.” In my own words, I like to point out that we are a light to help people see, not a consuming fire that tries to make everyone like us. Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam gives a very clear assertion of how we Jews are to be a light unto the nations, by referencing Abraham in Genesis:

“Do not think that his (Abraham’s) generosity was limited to feeding and hosting guests. In fact, that was just a small aspect of his generosity. You should know that he was generous even with his knowledge, his religion, his influence, and his wealth. He was generous ith his knowledge by teaching and instilling the unity of God and His ways… He was generous with his religion by revealing and publicizing the existence of God and proclaiming (His Name): wherever he camped, he built an altar, brought a sacrifice to God, and publicly ‘proclaimed the Name of God, Master of the world.’ (Genesis 21:33)” (Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam’s Guide to Serving God, Chapter 5.)

Megido was the perfect place to exercise such generosity!

Often times, we hear that our mission as a nation is to build families, perform the commands of the Torah, and pray. And to be sure, these are extremely important, but in this generation especially, I believe that there is now a need more than ever that we follow Avraham Avinu’s example, as so potently pointed out by Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam. Of course, we’ve heard one or two politicians use the verse that “we are a light unto the nations” and invoke the state of Israel’s advancement in cyber and medical technology, how the state has shown a great example of how to emerge in the 20th and 21st century as a successful start-up nation, and yet, when it comes to the true meaning of the verse, these assertions fall pathetically short.

For sure it is an amazing thing to innovate and invent new ways in technology that will make life easier, however, the true nature of the nation of Israel’s mission is to answer the human question of meaning. The questions of “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” “Do I as a human being matter?” “Who am I?” And all the more foundational questions abound for so many. More than people these days are looking for satisfaction physically, I believe that they are looking for meaning at the soul level. And indeed, we the nation of Israel have much to offer at this level–I would argue far more than we have to offer in economic wealth.

And yet, this was indeed the beauty of Megido–it stood as a portal for we the nation of Israel to show the world a different way while entering into the stock market-like-chaos of the global economy. A way that brought people into contact with the Source of all sources on their own level. That G-d is one and therefore, there is “reason beyond absurdity” as AJ Heschel put it.

The Tel of the ancient city of Megido today stands and sends us the nation of Israel a quiet message from its beautiful historical context: to be courageous and bold in connecting with non-Jews. Not to batten down the hatches in fear, but to open up and speak to people who are confused and disconcerted about who we are, what we believe, and what we are about. It is easiest in human nature to fear what we do not understand, and in fear we often become defensive, and in our defensiveness, we become aggressive. And I believe that the vast majority of non-Jews really do not understand Jews and Judaism at all, even if they assert that they do.

Even so, we as Jews must also dig deep, find out who we truly are, dig to our foundations and be ready to answer those complicated questions like people exhibiting light for others know how to do. It is dangerous to assert ourselves when we don’t know ourselves. And yet, should we embark on a mission like that of the ancient city of Megido, I believe we’ll find that we are making a great difference.

Again, Tel Megido stands and beckons us to be courageous. Not to be missionaries, but to be open in communication with those who are seeking guidance.

May we learn the beautiful example the Tel Megido silently sends to us, and may we grow in learning the spiritual generosity of Avraham Avinu.

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Northern Israel with his wife, daughter, and son.
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