Religion & Beliefs

Blogging Birthright: Day 4, or Falling in Love with Israel at Masada

We wake at 4:45 to climb Masada for sunrise. It’s a bit cloudy so the sun isn’t as spectacular as I'd hoped, but it's spectacular enough to inspire me to snap about 7,000 pictures of it. I’m supremely irked by … Read More

By / February 1, 2008

We wake at 4:45 to climb Masada for sunrise. It’s a bit cloudy so the sun isn’t as spectacular as I'd hoped, but it's spectacular enough to inspire me to snap about 7,000 pictures of it. I’m supremely irked by the fact that our counselors choose the exact 30 minutes during which the sun slowly emerges into blazing glory as the perfect time to lead songs and prayers. I routinely tune them out and am one of two or three people who completely ignore their request to put cameras away at the start of the service. I just can’t help myself: Here I am, standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, and the Judean desert—the likes of which I’ve only seen in nature documentaries. The sunlight is coloring the cliff faces rich shades of red and orange, and I’m supposed to turn my back and listen to singing I don’t understand or give a shit about? I don’t think so. We spend about three hours on top of Masada. Though I can’t adjust to the beauty of these surreal surroundings, it’s our tour guide Offer’s lecture that really makes my visit memorable. He tells us the story of Masada in cliff-hanging detail (no pun intended) as he leads us through the ruins. I'm surrounded by remnants of a fabulous palace inhabited by a group of Jews called the Zealots 2,000 years ago.
Positioned at the edge of a cliff in the middle of the desert, the palace offered views of approaching enemies, a sophisticated water system, glorious balconies, and even a sauna. Life was dandy here until the Romans came and set up twelve camps at the bottom of the cliff, surrounding the Zealots, ready to conquer. The Zealots could either fight or surrender. They talked it over and reasoned if they fought, they’d lose and die. If they surrendered, they’d watch their wives get raped, be enslaved, and die. Since death was inevitable, they decided to die with dignity by committing mass suicide. They killed the women first, since the worst thing for a woman is to watch her child die. Then they killed the children, and then the men killed each other. The account is probably an inflated, idealized version of history, but I’m not really thinking about that, because it was a good-ass story and I’m in awe of it. I recognize that I will never forget Offer’s final point, partly because he asked us to remember, and partly because of the natural phenomenon he demonstrates at the last stop on the mountain. We’re overlooking the valley where many Zealots supposedly plunged to their death. We face a smooth cliffside that looks like a paintbrush has freshly streaked it with burnt oranges and grayish browns.

“I’m going to tell you a phrase in Hebrew I never want you to forget,” Offer says. He teaches us the phrase. “Now, we’re going to shout these words as loudly as we can over this valley.” We face out and shout with all our might. Even I join in. A few seconds later our words echo back per-fect-ly. It’s like a Bizarro Birthright group is shouting back at us. We do it again. And again. “It means: Masada shall never fall again,” Offer says. “I want you to remember it because it means let us never have to choose between death and death. Let Israel never have to choose between death and death.” At the end of the day, I want this place to be my “homeland” because I’m so amazed by what I've seen. Though I can’t say I feel a connection yet, I can say I’m finally thrilled and delighted to be here.

Previously: Day 3, or Judaism Vs. Feminism At The Western Wall