When thinking of the return to Israel, one does not automatically think of the Negev. Return to Zion through the centuries centered on return to Jerusalem first and foremost. When that was not possible (for one reason or another), living in one of the other holy cities, Tzfat, Tiveria or Hebron, or the port of entry at Jaffa constituted most of the other Jewish communities in the land of Israel.
Modern Zionism diversified the settlement into agricultural areas as a way to reclaim the land and solidify a Jewish connection to the land itself. These communities were almost exclusively located in the center of the country between Jaffa and Jerusalem or in the Galilee where there was fertile farmland. The Negev was not part of the early kibbutz movement (with the sole exception of Kibbutz Ruchama). Resettling the land of our forefathers in modern times did not include the land where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spent large portions of their lives – the Negev.
This week took me to Gerar Stream in the Western Negev in Sharsheret Forest, ostensibly to see red flowers as part of the Red South (Darom Adom) festival, but also to explore this waterway which was so important to the patriarchs.
Gerar Stream and the city of Gerar is mentioned in the Bible in stories of Abraham and of Isaac. Abraham seeks refuge in the city of Gerar when there is a famine in Canaan. (Gerar sat on the southern boundary of Canaan according to Genesis 10:19.) Isaac, Abraham’s son, some years later, will also go to Gerar for the same purpose (escaping a famine), but he remains there and becomes wealthy. When he becomes the subject of envy, the residents of Gerar stop up Isaac’s wells in the area, the same wells that Abraham had dug. The king of Gerar, Avimelech, sends Isaac away. Isaac moves along the Gerar Stream, redigging the wells there. Eventually, he leaves the streambed and makes his way to Be’er Sheva. It is Isaac, the banished resident of Gerar, who gives Be’er Sheva its name after making a treaty with Avimelech there.
Our forefathers all spent time in the Negev desert – it is our seminal home. In the desert, God revealed himself to the Jewish people.
“God takes everyone he loves through a desert. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden. The first thing that happens is that we slowly give up the fight. Our wills are broken by the reality of our circumstances. The things that brought us life gradually die. The still, dry air of the desert brings the sense of helplessness that is so crucial to the spirit of prayer. You come face to face with your inability to live. Suffering burns away the false selves created by cynicism or pride or lust. The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self. Desert life sanctifies you. After awhile you begin to notice your real thirsts. While in the desert, David writes, “O God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” – Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World
The Negev has been sparsely populated throughout time, but there is life here. Here, walking along Gerar Stream, the possibility of life is emphasized. It’s a possibility that is underlined by the Red South (Darom Adom) Festival itself. Otherwise seemingly barren land gives rise to a plethora of wildflowers.
Jews who returned to Israel at the beginning of the last century lacked the tools to settle in the Negev. The kibbutz in Ruchama only stood initially for 7 years before succumbing to the difficulties. However, it, too, with time, was renewed and rebuilt.
Rebuilding after desolation gave rise to the Jewish State and symbolizes the rebirth of the Jewish nation during modern times, especially after the Holocaust. Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, would come to see the Negev as symbolizing Israel’s capacity for innovation. Israel’s thirsting for water in a dry and weary land has led us to become world leaders in agricultural and water management technologies.
The Red South Festival is more than just beautiful red flowers in the Negev, it is our ability to connect to the vista viewed yearly by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the impact that it surely had on them. There is the possibility of blossoming in this land.