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Day 2: Masada, Meaning and Questions that Matter

Someone once told me that anywhere else in the world, a tourist travels through a country, but in Israel the Jew journeys toward meaning. Up early (4:09 am – the result of too much jet-lag induced napping), with the hotel window open, a cool breeze and the sounds of the Holy land awakening, provides me with the chance to reflect back on yesterdays meaning-making on Masada and beyond.

Ultimate Questions

This morning’s ultimate question: If placed in the shoes of another, would we make the same choices? We hired a larger taxi for the day, to take us down south to Masada (the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi too). It was good to get out of raining Jerusalem, though who knew what kind of weather we would find beyond – divine blessing, it seems, at least in terms of weather. Clear, albeit cold, skies, and some strong winds met us on the mountaintop, making it sometimes chilly, but dry enough to walk around. Thankfully, the threat of ugly weather kept large numbers away from Masada, so we had this historic hilltop much to ourselves. We meandered, explored, took in the precious panorama surrounding us.

Much has been written about the difficult choices Masada’s first century Jewish residents had to make. Forced to flee Jerusalem under the Roman onslaught to King Herod’s Masada Palace retreat, they holed up, lived life, and prepared to fight the ever intensifying onslaughts by the Romans against Israel’s Jewish residents.

The new Museum at Masada offers a wonderful way to enter this ancient event. Jerusalem Post wrote about the Museum’s opening:

The visitors’ museum experience begins in the lobby, where they receive audio headsets. They then pass through nine rooms, each of which features artifacts placed in three-dimensional scenes that depict facets of the Masada story.

In the Herod room, for example, visitors enter a display of black, statue-like figures at a banquet scene. Spread amongst these figures are artifacts such as a stone table, amphoras which held Herod’s provisions, and terra sigillata ware (the finest dishware of the time.) As visitors move from room to room, their headsets automatically begin the narration for the corresponding space. The first eight rooms delve into the worlds of the Jewish rebels, the Romans, and Josephus Flavius, while the final room pays homage to Yadin’s work.

Later, ascending by tram, we were walking in the footsteps of the Jews on Masada. Even as we were enthralled with the beautiful 3-D vistas from the upper palace level looking over the whole desert, we faced with were their impossible choice: to live life as the slave – property – of the Romans, or to proclaim their freedom by self-determining that their lives must end while they are still a free people. (Full Masada story here).

Masada forced us 21st century Jews to consider: besides freedom, what do we value so highly that we will take strong measures to protect it? Eschew the Masada option if we like, but still we are left with the question: what do I value? Family, yes. Love, sure. Country? Homeland? Could we endanger our families for the sake of an ideal, or to save another? Would we today, for example, be willing to hide our generation’s Anne Frank? For what greater value would we step out and stand up? We American Jews are rarely forced to contemplate such questions.

Less important on the spectrum of ultimate questions was the decision to walk down the mountain, but to take the tram up. We decided that being exhausted and sweaty would impede the poignancy of the Masada experience up top. We saved it for the end, and after an energizing but exhausting descent, we regained our strength (and dried out our sweaty shirts) over lunch in the restaurant.

Wadis Go Wild
What do you do when things don’t turn out as expected? Get frustrated? Cry out in anger? Find new visions worthy of blessing? When do you realize that some things are just beyond your control, and it is time to “go with the flow?”

We intended to drive north to float in the (currently) frigid waters of the Dead Sea. Yet the rain had other plans for us. After fielding conflicting reports about whether the road north was open or closed, we drove up to see. Just before En Gedi, we witnessed something few chance upon safely. Hikers in Israel are regularly warned about the dangers of flash floods in the dry wadis of the Negev. Now, under clear skies, we were able to witness one ourselves. A wadi (dry canyon riverbed) had flooded, sending thousands of gallons of muddy water across the road. Just 200 feet separated the dry land on both sides. We waved to people on the other side. Yet, the police had stopped traffic, after a 4×4 got stuck in the muck. This could have been a buzzkill. Instead, like for Israelis and others in love with their land, the roadblock did little to douse spirits. People on both sides of the blockage parked, and hiked up the sides of the wadi. Some took out beach chairs and boiled water for Turkish coffee; others took to the heights to watch with amazement. I remember learning that perhaps the Israelites crossing the Red Sea could be explained right here: that a wadi flooding, just as suddenly runs out of water allowing the Israelites to cross, until just as suddenly a flash flood of muddy water catches and drowns the pursuing Egyptians. Whichever, it was majestic.

Letting go of the plan to swim in the Dead Sea (now a swirl of brilliant aqua and muddy chocolate brown), we decided to leave early to take the long route back to Jerusalem. This southern, western roundabout route would claim up to 3 hours to get back. Still, nothing ever works perfectly. Some roads were blocked off, forcing even more detours. Sometimes the rain came down in buckets, creating slippery conditions. Other times the fog decreased visibility so much that traffic slowed to a trickle as we could only see the road and the car in front of us. One travel companion wondered when the next plague would strike. Then came the hail, small mini-balls of ice, pelting the group around us at a traffic stop. We Jews sing Shir Hama’alot, a song of ascension, upon ascending to Jerusalem. I hummed the tune to myself in thanks for finally arriving back in Jerusalem after a much longer journey than expected.

Love of Spouse and Belief in God: Twin Claimants of that “Leap of Faith”
Ultimate questions of belief poked their heads out again at night as we shared dinner together in the hotel. Between bites of tuna sandwiches, penne and red sauce, sophisticated-sounding salads, and some bottled water, we shared stories of our engagements to our wives, regaling each other with the fun details of deciding and planning to ask. Here, a ring was hidden in a tie tack jewelry box. There, a Valentine’s Day gift box from Victoria Secret enclosed a promise of a future (clearly, a shiny ring beats new pj’s any day). One invited a girlfriend on a business lunch, exchanging the frustration of being “stood up” by the “business associate” with the joy of a proposal to make a life together forever. A picnic during a long sought performance at a Shakespeare festival provided the backdrop for another proposal. I shared our joyous moment in Yosemite, where I offered her the lights of Orion’s belt as a testament to my forever love of her (resizing her great grandmother’s ring would come later, as would the 5 stoned ring we later picked out – one stone for each member of our yet-to-be-created family). My 20 year old niece Yonina promised to share her engagement story with us eventually, when the right guy comes along. We also talked about who asked the father-in-law for permission ahead of time; when and how family was included in the announcement. (I remember hanging out in a Marie Callendar’s restaurant, nervously trying to eat a patty melt, as we waited for my future in-laws to finish work so we could share the exciting news with them.)

All that wonderful talk about love provided the perfect backdrop to an unexpected yet equally delicious discussion about truth and belief and Torah and science. Being surrounded by ultraorthodox Jewish families whose lives are proscribed by Talmudic law, and whose relationships to each other (the roles of men and women) and daily life (prayer, study, work) are often so different from our own, questions of faith get magnified. So we talked. Is there a midpoint between literalism/fundamentalism and blind belief? Can Judaism make room for Darwin and dinosaurs when Torah offers a very specific God-centric story about six days of creation? If aliens from five different worlds simultaneously were to make their presence known to us, how would that affect Jewish belief in the creation of humanity? Is God the proprietor of a divine candy shop, distributing sweets (blessings, goodness) to us whenever we wish? And what does it mean when our prayers are not answered?

Some worried that such questions might offend me, their rabbinical traveling companion. I relished the discussion. (Only a bite of the rugaleh from Marzipan, sitting up in my room, could have made it even sweeter.) You see, it’s my life’s work to push people beyond the literalist reading of Torah, to open them up to meaning and Torah’s search for ultimate meaning. That truth need not be historical; that science need not be seen as being in opposition to religious belief. That the foolish acts of fundamentalists (and their cynical misuse of religion to kill and maim) does not negate the possibility that God exists and is benevolent.

I endorse the eighteenth century Chassidic rebbe who said that anyone who reads Torah only (primarily?) as p’shat (on its plot level) is a fool. Torah is about life lessons, not historic truths. It answers the question “why” to complement science’s question about “how.” Its sometimes stark stories of creation, primitive medicine and miracles are on their surface merely the experience of a people in its infancy. Just as my children once viewed me as all powerful, all knowing but as they have grown have developed a more nuanced view of their all loving father, so too must we mine meaning from Torah – through study, midrash and more – to discover insights (and answers perhaps) to ultimate questions.

As I age, and realize how little control I truly have over things in life, I become increasingly aware of realities that are unquestionable: the love I share with my wife, my love and devotion to my children, and my experience that we are all connected in a Oneness others call God. I cannot prove the love of my wife by an empirical means any more that I can prove that God exists. A cynic could ascribe ulterior (non-love) motives to the former; the non-believer finds comfort in our ability NOT to be able to prove God. But love and belief go hand in hand. Both require a leap of faith. And I lovingly, though not blindly, leap forward. Can you?

Oh, how I loved that nighttime conversation! They say Jerusalem’s air is intoxicating. I’m more than ready to get high on such heady discussions again and again.

Its 5:50 am. Time to wake up. Breakfast and modern Jerusalem calls. I wonder what questions she will ask us today!?! Oy, gotta run. I’ll try to embed more pictures later. Check the new ones here.

One comment

  1. Susan says:

    Interesting premise on Judaism & Darwin. You knew that would get my attention, didn't you? Do you ever wonder what will happen to Israel if its leaders don't continue to evolve? I do. I worry that it will become irrelevant to the world outside it's borders. It's one of the reasons I truly hope that Israel can learn to not only tolerate and accept but embrace the views of its reform cousins.

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