Friday morning, I woke up at 2:30 AM. An hour later, we boarded a tour bus full of what looked like recent college graduates mostly from the United States, and headed south.
Our first stop was Masada, where the palace complex built for Herod was used by Judean rebels who refused to succumb into Roman hands; the story of the almost 1000 Jews who held out for as long as they did is well-known (who remembers the Peter O’Toole miniseries that aired on television in the 1980s?). Their motivation for that difficult-to-fathom decision was clear: “After several months of siege without success, the Romans built a tower on the ramp to try and take out the fortress’s wall. When it became clear that the Romans were going to take over Masada, on April 15, 73 A.D., on the instructions of Ben Yair, all but two women and five children, who hid in the cisterns and later told their stories, took their own lives rather than live as Roman slaves.”
Climbing its snake path was much harder than I had anticipated (and I am still sore days later). Thinking about how its inhabitants made their drastic decision was even more difficult. Seeing the sunrise over the desert was breathtaking.
Earlier in the week, we had visited Yad Vashem.
The last time I had been there was in the late 1980s. I remembered the horrifying exhibits of lampshades that Nazis had made from the skin of Jews. Certain pieces of sculpture stood out in my mind as well. It had been difficult then. I was not sure what to expect now. Much had changed. How the story was presented and the number of other exhibit halls that had since been built presented a story that was replete with context: what had led up to the Nazism in Germany, how those in other countries collaborated or did not, gave approval or were indifferent, acquiesced or rebelled. It left us visitors with much to absorb. Both about those who had lost their own humanity and could carry out such atrocities to others. And about the losses our people — and our world — suffered. What artists, comedians, musicians, scientists, inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, doctors and researchers might have been. When you walk out of Yad Vashem’s narrow dark exit, the vista is filled with nature and light and life.
In between the period when Romans sought to put down a rebellion and enslave Jews and thetime when the Germans sought to eradicate the world of all Jews, there were many other acts of persecution against the Jews. In every generation, it seems, there are those who want us to leave, to go away, to not be present. But as the professor for a class I am taking now points out, we need to also be careful; this constant persecution ought not be the way we as Jews define ourselves.
I capped off this week by meeting with family members I’d only discovered this past year. Back in the early 1900s, my grandfather and most of his siblings came to the United States from then Russian. Most of the descendants of the two who did not move away were killed during the Holocaust; one son who survived must have felt so alone.
He later found a wife, had two sons, and descendants of one of them moved to Israel. For me, getting to find and meet family which had been shredded apart by oceans and war and time and language was very moving, very meaningful. Reconnecting that which has been disconnected, torn and hurt not only heals but gives promise.
In my mind, I see the blossoming of family, the way I saw the light and the land when we emerged from Yad Vashem’s dark chambers and saw the sun rising over the desert – symbolically saying that we must look ahead. Each day is a new one and each sunrise is precious. We must not waste this gift. And we must always be aware of the dangers of unbridled hate.
Learning history is important for understanding the past; seeking the light is important for allowing us to see a path forward.