There is a rabbinic notion about descending from heights. Yerida l’shem aliyah, they call it. Descent for the purpose of ascent. Arising out of the experience of our Biblical ancestors of leaving the Holy Land – from Abraham and Sarah to the generation who left the famine in Canaan for Egypt, this precept reminds us that sometimes we must descend into lower spiritual realms in order to ultimately ascend to greater spiritual heights. People in 12 Step programs know that sometimes a person needs to hit his/her rock bottom (lowest point of addiction) before s/he can begin the process of recovery. Individuals fighting cancer know that sometimes you must endure nauseating, painful chemotherapy in order to put the cancer in remission. Similarly, sometimes you need to leave the Holy City of Jerusalem to fully sense the endless wonder of the rest of Israel.
So on Monday, mixing sadness and excitement, we descended from Jerusalem’s spiritual heights, arriving soon thereafter below sea level at Masada and the Dead Sea. Ascending by cable car, we soon realized that Masada and its environs are indeed beautiful. Who cannot but marvel at King Herod’s architectural genius of building this palace (and fortress) atop the plateau of Masada?! In Herod’s day, you could relax in luxurious bathhouses (cold water, steam rooms, hot pools). Intricate water channels brought water from the desert’s flash rains into cisterns cut into the base of Masada, which a host of servants (or slaves) easily brought up to the top. You could settle down in multi-columned atriums, enjoying both the majestic vistas and the healing power of the warm desert air.
Masada is not a bad place to hole up, especially if you were the last of the Jewish zealots revolting against the Romans following chorban habayit, the destruction of second Jerusalem Temple, in 70 CE. The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is still celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. (Even today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price our ancestors paid for our nation. They cry: “Masada shall not fall again!”) Our tour group relived the stressful debate about how to respond to the uncompromising Roman onslaught which was beyond the Jews’ ability to thwart. Shall we surrender? Fight to the death? Try to escape? We listened as zealot leader Elazar ben Ya’ir (played convincingly by Jon Wolfson) raised spirits and convinced his fellow zealots to make the ultimate sacrifice for their values. Yerida l’shem aliyah. You can read about the engaging conclusion online.
Equally engaging was tour leader Alexandra Benjamin’s invitation to family groups to identify central values and commit ourselves through specific actions to maintaining them. Some groups dedicated to Emet (honesty); others to Mishpacha (centrality of family); and still others to Shutafut (partnership, helping each other). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Apparently, our descent into the turmoil of Masada’s history allowed us to ascend in our recommitment to significant Jewish values.
Finally the few of us journeyed down the winding snake path. It was a precarious at times; a breeze other moments. Glorious vistas, aching knees and great conversation vied with each other for attention. (My group shared stories of how we met and became engaged to our spouses). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Descent for the purpose of ascent. I shall miss Jerusalem until the next trip, but I shall treasure these ascending memories.