10 Stories from Masada
1. When I was 7 years old my family took a trip to Israel. It was one of the first times that my dad went back to visit since he emigrated in 1971. The story goes that his dad, my grandfather, who had fought against the British in ’47 and against the surrounding countries in ’48, ’56, and ’67, did not want his son who was turning 18 to have to fight as well. I’ve never talked to my dad about this, but I think one of the reasons why it took him so long to go back was because so many people his age were killed in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, that it must have been a very different country afterwards.
So, I’m 7 years old and we go to Masada. What I remember from the mountain was the moment where our tour guide brought us to a series of stones that each had a Hebrew letter on them. He asked if anyone could identify the letter and I said I could, it was the letter “shin.” The tour guide beamed and said, “you see, 2,000 years after it was written, and a little boy today can still decipher the language.”
2. Masada is a giant rock in the middle of a barren wasteland, next to a poisoned sea. It attracts close to a million tourists every year, particularly young Jews from around the world. I was 28 years old and hanging out on a stone bench next to a high school group from the states. The leader of the group handed out postcards to all the students and told them to write a letter home and to make sure that they declare that the letter was written at the top of Masada. The students eagerly began to write. Except for one. I watched as this girl took her postcard and pen and walked about 20 paces from the group towards a little pile of rubble. She nestled into the rubble, creating a space for herself amid this overoccupied rock, and wrote her postcard from there.
3. In the summer of 2010, as we in the states were dealing with the BP disaster, and shortly after a huge volcano erupted in Iceland spreading ash across the world, Israeli Special Forces boarded a Turkish flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea. The flotilla was attempting to bring aid to Gaza but would not submit to Israeli search. In boarding the flotilla, Israeli commandos killed nine crew members before finally arresting and deporting everyone else on the flotilla. While the U.N. declared that the blockade was legal, they determined that in this case Israel acted with excessive force. No sanctions were placed on Israel, though the blockade was lightened.
4. One morning I climbed to the top of Masada with a Christian group from South Carolina. We left the base around 4:00 am and arrived at the top around 5:30, just in time to watch the sunrise over the Jordanian Mountains. When we reached the top, the pastor, Jon, read a passage from Ephesians: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the lord. Live as children of light.” As we walked the top of the mountain I asked Jon why he chose to bring his group to Masada. He said that the general purpose of the trip was to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Trying my best to not sound belittling, I said, but you know, Jesus never came to Masada. Jon laughed and said, “yeah, I know, but we’re trying to visit as many sites as possible to know what life was like back then, and Masada, I think, really shows what the stakes were back then, and how people felt about religion.”
5. I went on a tour led by a guide named Benny. As we begin our hike up the mountain Benny tells us that a friend of his will be meeting us at the top to tell us the story of Masada. There are two paths up the mountain but the road doesn’t connect them, so you either come from the Dead Sea side, as we did, or you come from the city of Arad, as Benny’s friend would. So, we hike up and as we get to the top, Benny’s friend is nowhere around. Benny calls him and he says he’s running late, so Benny takes us through some of the Roman ruins, but he says that he doesn’t want to tell the story because his friend will tell it much better. Instead, Benny tells us about how people were able to live up in the middle of the desert for years without a consistent water supply, about how the Romans built their garrison up here, and then how the Jews adapted the buildings for their own use during the Jewish-Roman war. Finally, when Benny tells us all he can about the history of the site, he gets a phone call from his friend who is on the mountain and trying to find us. Benny leaves us in a little hut and goes off to find his friend.
About five minutes later, Benny comes back. But it’s not really Benny. His long hair, which had been tied back was now free flowing, he was wearing sackcloth, and held in his hand a sicar, the curved dagger that the last defenders of Masada, the sicarii, were known for. He is not Benny, but Elazar ben Yair, the rebel leader and he tells us of the fight that took place at Masada nearly 2000 years ago. The Romans had burnt the temple at Jerusalem but the sicarii would not submit to the will of the Romans and took the desert fortress as their home. The tenth Roman legion came with 10,000 troupes and surrounded the mountain, but the Jews would not yield. The paths were too narrow for the army to climb, and when they tried, Benny as Elazar, tells us that he and his sons would just have to throw a rock, and one by one, like dominoes, the soldiers would fall back down the path. So, what does the greatest army in the world do? They build a ramp. A massive structure going from the base of the mountain all the way to its top. When the ramp was built they bring a massive battering ram to the top and begin to break down the walls of the fortress. Realizing that come morning, the 900 men, women and children at the top of Masada would have to face the Roman legion below, Elazar called his people together. Should we surrender, said Elazar, we will all be sold to slavery. Should we fight, the men will surely be killed and the rest will be sent to slavery. Let us not give the Romans any sort of victory. Let us take our own lives, right here, and right now. Let the Romans come and find nothing useful. And so, as the Romans broke down the walls and stormed the fortress they found only a burning pile of food and weapons, and everywhere they looked, dead bodies. The men had killed their families and then drew lots until there was one left, and that one took his own life.
6. There was once a great scholar of the Talmud who had taken to drinking. A scholar that’s a drunk, you say!?! I know it, but it’s true. One day, a friend rebuked him.
“Don’t you know that our sages condemn drunkenness?”
“You think I don’t know that? Of course I know that! I’m not drinking to get drunk, I’m drinking to drown my sorrows.”
“Ah” said the friend. “Have you succeeded in drowning them?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the scholar. “You see, my sorrows are spiteful. The more I drink, the better swimmers they become!”
8. A performance group was doing a performance at Masada. I asked the director, Moshe, if I could tag along. He said to meet him on the Arad desert road at 2:45 am the morning of the performance. There are no real landmarks there, but I was the only other car on the road so we didn’t have much trouble finding each other. We got out of the cars and introduced ourselves and I met his performance group. They told me that they were really excited to get on the desert road because lots of animals come out at night. He said that they like to turn the lights on the animals. I wasn’t really sure what that meant. He said to just follow him, but to be careful as the road was filled with twists and turns.
No sooner did we hit the road than Moshe slammed on his breaks and turned his car 90 degrees. I saw, in his headlights, two giant porcupines trying to get away. Moshe continued to follow them with his lights until they scampered off into the desert. I turned to look and saw Moshe and one of the performers with huge smiles on their faces, as if to say “see, isn’t that cool!” They both gave me a thumbs up and then we got back on the road.
9. The performance that Moshe gave was highly animated and, for the most part, went along with the traditional telling of the Masada story. But then they get to the point where they start talking about the relationship between the sicarii, the Jews at Masada, and the rest of the Jewish world. Every time a different group was mentioned, the performers said their name with contempt and then spat. Moshe’s character asked, “how do you expect to achieve anything if you can’t even get along with people who believe the same thing as you?!”
10. After the performance, Moshe told me that there was a private group that managed the gift shop at the base. The group was trying to tell Moshe that he was not allowed to perform at Masada without their permission. Moshe told me, “we have never had to deal with this before. The director of the site thinks we do good work and he’s happy to have us here. But this group is now trying to control what we can and cannot say. It’s like Masada all over again. We just want to do our little performances, and the Romans down there are telling us that we can’t. What are we supposed to do?”