On the Road Again

One topic which fascinates me is the  development of roads as a mirror of human settlement.  I recently spoke at the 50th anniversary of Moshav Mevo Modiim exactly about this topic – the development of the road system as it paralleled the development of the Modiin area.

Modiin sits near the main highway in antiquity which linked the cities of Jaffa, on the coastal plain, and Jerusalem, in the mountains.  This road is one of the few roads actually named in the Bible.  It is called “Maaleh Beit Horon”, the ascent of Beit Horon. (There are only 3 such ascents mentioned at all:  Maaleh Beit Horon, Maaleh Adumim, and Maaleh Akrabim.)  Finding a passage with a relatively low grade throughout to connect these two cities would have been very important, not only for moving passengers and cargo, but for transporting armies going to war.  Because of its strategic importance, control of this road is very important for regional politics.


What was the route of the road?  The road left Jaffo through Lod, then went from Lod through the Ayalon Valley, up through Beit Sira of today, transversing through the modern day villages of Beit Ur el Tachta and Beit Ur el Fuka, snaking around today’s Givat Zeev to Nebi Samuel before entering Jerusalem from Ramot.  More or less.   Roads in antiquity did not have a definite edge or only one way.  They were more like beams of light, with more traffic in the center and then tapering off on the edges.

During the era when the tribes of Israel entered in and settled the land of Israel, this road served as a staging ground for Joshua when he goes out to fight the Amorites.  They succeed against the Amorites, but cannot capture all the cities on the coast.  The powerful Philistines and Phoenicians rule there, and their sophisticated weaponry and fortified cities are no match for the nascent nation.   The children of Israel exert control over the Shefela, the lowlands, which borders the coastal plain, and that area becomes a actual border of sorts.  Think about the battles in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel.  Many of these battles take place in the Shefela.

After the return to Zion after the destruction of the First Temple, the area of the Land of Israel exists as a satrapy in the Persian government.  From then through the conquest of Alexander the Great, the Maccabean revolt, the Romans and the Byzantines, the entire country is united, either as an independent nation or under foreign rule.  The road continues to be the main route to Jerusalem.  Also, the fact that there is (relative) peace, means that the region of the Shefela can flourish.  This is when the city of Modiin comes into its own.  Founded, populated and then made famous by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, this Jewish town near the road was “well positioned”, leading to its wealth and success.  The Byzantines built heavily in the region, erecting a massive basilica over (maybe) the site of the Maccabbean graves.

But all was to come to a grinding halt.  The Moslems conquered the land of Israel in 632 C.E.  They had no desire to revere a Jewish military/religious hero.  The site of the Maccabbean graves became irrelevant and forgotten.  But what about the city of Modiin?  The city continued to do well and prosper, but with a Moslem population now.

About 450 years later, a new change came to the Land of Israel which would have a huge impact on both Maaleh Beit Horon and the city of Modiin.  European Crusaders attack and capture the entire area of the Land of Israel.  They are not 100% successful, however.  They practice “religious tolerance” especially towards the Moslem population.  Tolerance, but at an arm’s length.  And that includes on which roads they are willing to travel.

Take Maaleh Beit Horon.  The Crusaders don’t like this road.  It is “dangerous” as it goes too close to large Arab cities.  So the Crusaders build their own road.  (Not exactly build, they just make improvements to an existing, smaller, local road.)  This road connects the Crusader sites of Lod, Emmaus, Abu Ghosh, Aquabella (Ein Hemed), Ein Kerem and finally Jerusalem.  It is in the area of Rt. 1 of today.  There are hairpin turns, there are cliffs, there are steep ascents and descents.  The Crusaders don’t care.  They are far away from the Moslem population and close to their own religious sites.

Because the focus changes away from Maaleh Beit Horon, the settlements along that road suffer.  The city of Modiin shrinks and people don’t visit.  It turns into a small village.
For the next 1000 years, the main route to Jerusalem from the coast will be the Crusader road.  Advancing armies, like that of the British during WWI will still use Maaleh Beit Horon – it is the sensible road.  But normal traffic will flow on the Crusader path.  When supplies are being taken to Jerusalem during Israel’s Independence War, it will be along the Crusader road.  Even with the threat of ambush from the encroaching Jerusalem Hills, it is still a more sure bet than traveling close to larger Arab towns, such as Ramallah, and El Jib which are along Maaleh Beit Horon.

After the Independence War, passage on Maaleh Beit Horon is impossible as a large section of the road is in the country of Jordan.  Ancient Modiin is in Jordan and exists as a small village on the border.  Development in the Modiin area is stunted on the Israeli side as well.  It takes 16 years for the Israeli government to approve a Jewish settlement in the area of ancient Modiin with the founding of Mevo Modiim in 1964, near the Maccabbean graves.  The area is once again on the border as it was during the time of Joshua, but this time the border is to the East.

Three short years later, in 1967, as a result of the Six Days War, Modiin will again be in the center of the country.  Israel conquers the territory of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, as well as other territories.

Starting in the late 1970’s and continuing through the 1980’s and 1990’s, a building spree in the Modiin area will take advantage of the central location, especially since the ancient road, now updated to become Rt. 443, is open.  Once again, traffic can flow unimpeded along the ancient route between main cities of the coast (specifically Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem.

And finally, in 1996, the modern city of Modiin (situated in the area of the ancient city) will welcome its first inhabitants.

All because of the road.



modiin dayWe are coming up to the holiday of Passover.  And it occurs to me that my life over the last few years has a lot of parallels to that first Passover.

The children of Israel were in Egypt in a situation which was getting increasingly worse, not only for them, but at the end also for those around them.

And then it happened.  In haste, they left Egypt.  They didn’t have time for the correct preparations.  They didn’t have time for a normal meal.  They sat with their children and their neighbors and waited for the moment when they would leave Egypt.  They didn’t have time to dream.

And then, when the time came, they couldn’t even leave under their own power.  With an outstretched hand, God took them out of Egypt. God pushed them from one reality to another.  They missed the watermelon and the eggplant.  They doubted leaving the known of Egypt for an unknown future.  What would they eat?  What would they drink?  Where was the illustrious “Land of Milk and Honey”? Questions they had.  Answers fewer.  After the events of the first few months, the drowning of the Egyptians and the receiving of the Torah, the sin of the Golden Calf,  after the fanfare and the fireworks, it started.

What it?  The silence – the 38 years of wandering and wondering. And what remains for us is this, silence.  No stories, no laws, nothing.  Day after day of existence – simple existence.

And then, as suddenly as it started, they were on the opposite bank of the Jordan, across the area of Qesr al-Yehud of today.  Their new reality was in front of them; a new mission, a new land, new dreams.  They had new inspiration and new connections.  They knew who was in their tribe and where they were meant to be.  Moshe, in a series of short snippets, gave them the entire book of Deuteronomy in a single month to prepare them for the next phase.

And then, they worked to fulfill those dreams.  Building one day onto the next and working toward something – not simply existing but moving forward.  They were not always successful – they lost at Ai, suffered with civil war,  ignored prophets and followed evil kings – but they worked toward a goal.  We read about all those events in the books of the prophets.  Scroll after scroll of stories written about a people who found a goal after a silence.

Silence is where I am these days.  I justify it away.  I tell myself it takes time.  And it is true that I feel that my everyday life is existence, just existence.  I look for inspiration on Facebook.  I don’t write enough.  I don’t have a plan.  And perhaps more troubling for me, I don’t have dreams. This lack of dreams is intertwined with a lack of stories.  Nothing new.  Nothing worth weaving a story around.  Silent and storyless.

And then, I realize that I need to get my life back on track.  I am o.k.  My kids are fabulous.  My friends are my family.  I have some work I love.  Thank God.  Thank God.  And now I need to find the inspiration, to dream.

It’s a rough spot.  Usually, I am providing inspiration for others – putting pieces together to make a coherent whole which will touch you spiritually, cognitively,  or otherwise.  That is the way I guide.

Part of the puzzle came together through a comment by a stranger. Someone who commented about the quality of my posts. And I realize that I have neglected my writing.  Writing is part of me and something I love.  That part of the dream has been silent – but it doesn’t need to be.  Going back to writing is awakening part of myself.  I need to find the other parts, do those things which make me supremely happy.  They are part of the dream as well.

With Passover just ahead, I need to refocus on being a  guide for myself.  I need to find the pieces which make me who I am and put them together into a coherent whole – to find a dream.

It’s there, I know it is.  Just beyond Qesr al-Yehud….

Nothing New under the Sun

I recently toured the City of David and someone asked a question about the dating of the Rock Hewn Pool, which has recently been opened to the public.  I told him that the pool was dated by analyzing pottery sherds.  (The Rock Hewn Pool has been dated to been in use from about 1800  B.C.E. until 700 B.C.E.)

“Can’t they date it by coins?”  he asked.
“Coins didn’t exist then,” I countered.
“Well, then, what about the Half Shekel mentioned in the Bible?”

The Bible mentions a tax levied on the Children of Israel when they came out of Egypt and were in the desert to be used for building thethe mishkan.

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay; a half-shekel by weight (20 geras to the shekel) a half-shekel as an offering to G-d.  Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of 20 years up, shall give G-d’s offering.  The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel whend’s offering to atone for your souls.”    Exodus 30:13-15

After reading the text and other texts in the Bible which mention shekels, it is clear that the shekel was meant to be a weight, and the items which were collected were used themselves to make certain vessels for use in religious practices.

Today, however, it is hard to imagine life without coins.  We fall into the thought that there is nothing new under the sun.  And since  the Israeli currency is the New Israeli Shekel and most of us are used to paying taxes with money, we picture in our heads, the Biblical shekel as being coinage.  We imagine the Children of Israel in the desert handing minted coins over to the priests to pay for the items necessary for the tabernacle.

In antiquity, people didn’t really “pay for” things they wanted.  In order to acquire something you wanted, you needed to offer something  else.  Trading grain for wool, one type of fruit for another, birds for fish, that sort of thing.  Precious metals provided a more portable wealth.  Traveling long distances with a small amount of gold or silver and then trading that metal for provisions once you arrived at your destination was much more convenient than shlepping  your goods.  That metal would need to be weighed at the point of sale to insure that you were paying the fair amount.  And the    metal’s value didn’t change whether you were using it to trade or to  construct a cup.

In the Bible, shekel is related to weight (mishkal) since the value  was in the weight of the metal.  An interesting aside, Ashkelon wasa place where there was a  lot of weighing of metal (look for the root sh.k.l in both).     Biblical references to shekel are talking about a certain weight of metals.  These very materials will be used for construction ofthey will not be used to buy them but to actually create them.

So, if shekel in the Bible is not talking about coins, and there were no coins in biblical times, when did coins come into use?  The basic philosophy of coinage is that you take something and ascribe to it more value than it intrinsically has.  A $100 bill is not, in    and of itself, worth $100.  The paper, the ink, and even taking into account the design, layout and construction, do not lend a value of $100 to the bill.  In fact, $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are all intrinsically worth the same amount – 12.5 cents.  Our society, however, has agreed that the $100 bill is worth $100.

In antiquity, coinage started local.  A local community, for reasons of convenience, agreed to ascribe value to hunks of metal (again because they are very portable).  If someone came in from out of town, he may or may not agree to accept local currency in his trades.  Only with large empires, did coinage become universally accepted.  Across large distances, coins were a way to provide a common thread between diverse peoples.  And coins were ads, reminding the populace who was in charge as the ruler’s symbol or face was often depicted on the coin.

The first coins which were used across distances were during the time of the Persian persian-coinsempire and some of the first coins which were more than local were manufactured here in Israel.  Cyrus, who allowed the Jewish people to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem, also gave them the freedom to mint their own coins.

In order to raise money for the renovation and maintenance of the Temple, Ezra levied the third shekel tax (around 450 B.C.E.).  This tax eventually, over the next few hundred years morphed into the half shekel tax (inflation?).   These coins from the Second Temple period have been found and provide a fabulous way to date sites.  Before this time, however, coins were an anachronism.

Moses never saw a coin.  Neither did King David.  So the Spring House and the Rock Hewn pool could not have been dated by coins.  We can’t take today’s realities to be mirrored throughout history.  Even the graphite pencil I write with and the bottled beer I drink are recent inventions from 600 years ago.  Weird.  But,maybe some things are new under the sun.

Intelligent Crossing

“I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillment only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection.”

Luther Burbank

Today my Places in Your Neighborhood tour took me to guide at one of my favorite sites – Qesr al-Yehud on the Jordan.  I have been fascinated by this place ever since qesr-dadmy first visit as part of the tour guide course.  During that time, the site was closed to the general public, and only with consultation with the army, could a group enter.  As you drive along the road which leads you to the site, an eerie combination of run-down  Christian compounds and barbed-wire fences warning of mine fields accompanies you on both sides.  As you approach the site, in the near distance you can see brand new churches, their gold domes and spires glistening.

But it isn’t the modern military history or the site’s place in the Christian mythos that attracts me to Qesr al-Yehud.  What draws me here over and over again is the ability to access the Jordan, and the thought that very near to this spot, the Children of Israel crossed into the Land of Israel and started their journey to nationhood.

Today, we reached Qesr al-Yehud after exploring part of Nahal Prat and beginning an encounter with wilderness and water.   The soothing noise of the Jordan flowing by their feet started lulling some people into a short snooze.  I started to tell the story of the Children of Israel crossing the Jordan, when David O.  asked how I could be sure that this was the spot.  I explained about how this is one of the natural places along the Jordan where it is easier to cross and so it makes sense that they would have chosen this location.  But, he countered, the crossing of the Jordan was miraculous, so wouldn’t it have been even more of a miracle to stand somewhere where it wasn’t so easy to cross?  Maybe somewhere randomly along the Jordan?

I heard his argument.  G-d did magnify the miracles performed during the exodus from Egypt to prove his might in front of the world and the Jewish people.  Interesting point.  But something didn’t sit right.  Whether Qesr means Castle or Breaking through, this site is connected to the Jewish people (al-Yehud).  The Eshtorei HaParchi who was one of the early travelers to Israel in the Medieval period, tells us that the probably the most
accurate factor in determining the location of a Biblical place is the current Arabic name, so there must be some Jewish connection preserved here throughout the ages.  Why not the crossing?

As we continued on our visit to the site, David O. just would not let it rest.  He kept after me for evidence that this was the site of the crossing.   Maybe some pottery shards, some ancient buildings marking the spot?  I explained that there would not have been much material culture from a nomadic people.  But he still didn’t let it rest.

In case you think I am complaining, let me assure you, I am not.  These challenges push me to think deeper, research more, and put things in order.  This is one of the experiences which makes me happy to be a tour educator and not just a tour guide.  I don’t have all the answers and thrive on input from others.  If people don’t let up, then I know they are engaging with the subject matter, and that is a total win for me.

And then, after another comeback, it hit me.  Something which made sense of my intuitions; something more concrete.

Maybe we were looking at the story from the wrong angle?  Maybe the perspective of 3500 years of history had colored our view of the events?

I asked David O. to put himself in the position of Joshua.  He had just taken over from the greatest leader/prophet of all time, Moses.  Joshua needed to complete a task – lead the children of Israel over the Jordan and into Israel.  How was this going to happen?  At the beginning, the mechanics were not clear.  It was not clear to Joshua that the people would merit a miraculous crossing; it is not even on his radar scope as a possibility.  So, Joshua takes the people to a place where it would make sense to cross, Qesr al-Yehud.  Only after he arrives there and sets up camp for a week or so is Joshua let in on G-d’s plan to bring the Children of Israel over the Jordan in a miraculous fashion.

It isn’t that Joshua doesn’t have faith in G-d, it is just that he is making a sensible plan.  It is Joshua’s Intelligent Crossing here at Qesr al-Yehud and G-d’s Selection of the Jewish people which forged the nation .  And while I am still not sure that David O. is convinced, I think that both he and I learned something today.  Fabulous!

Let It Flow

“If you have a good idea, use it so that you will not only accomplish something, but so that you can make room for new ones to flow into you.”                                                   Deng Min-Dao, Everyday Tao:  Living with Balance and Harmony

Next week, I will be offering a Places in Your Neighborhood trip to two water sources:  Nahal Prat and the Jordan, so it is time to complete last week’s discussion of water.

Nahar, Nachal, and HaYarden have one common factor – they are vectors. That
just means that they have a path which they follow to take water from one place to another.  Israel is a hilly country and water seeks the lowest level, so this type of feature is very prevalent.

A Nahar is a large, flowing body of water.  There are two main naharot mentioned in the Bible – Nahar Prat (Euphrates River) and Nahar Mitzrayim (Nile River). The main purposes of naharot in the Bible are for denoting borders (people cross over the nahar to get to another land), drinking, and irrigation.  There are no naharot in the land of Israel.  The lack of a nahar in the Land of Israel means that there are no “borders” between the people who live in the land.
In contrast to nahar is nachal.  A nachal refers not to water, but to a place which, at a minimum, has a potential for water.  These stream beds may always flow, or only for a few hours a year during flash floods.   Eight different specific nechalim in Israel are mentioned in the Bible.

This difference, between a nahar and a nachal is crucial in understanding the mission of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  Before entering the land of Israel, the children of Israel ask G-d what it’s like there.  I think of this as kind of a consultation with the
tour guide.    In Deuteronomy 11:10 we get to the core of this description.  Israel is not Egypt;  it is supplied with water by rain (not by a nahar – the Nile).  G-d’s eyes are always on Israel (to provide sufficient water) which also means that G-d’s eyes are also
on the land’s inhabitants to determine how much rainfall will be provided.  The Children of Israel must be aware of their actions and how they affect their survival.  They can walk around the land and see  the potential for water through the dry nechalim.  This is the complete dependence on G-d and a continual striving to do good deeds, mitzvot.  G-d sees Israel’s potential.  That’s awesome!

Now maybe you noticed at the beginning that I put The Jordan (HaYarden) in its own category.  Most English translations of the Biblical text translate HaYarden as the Jordan River.  In the Bible, however, never once is HaYarden referred to as anything other than HaYarden.  This body of water, which flows continually and fluctuates in depth and course, is mentioned 181 times in the Bible.  (The next runner up within the land of Israel, Nahal Kishon, is mentioned only 11 times.)  The Jordan figures prominently in 3 stories.

#1:  Children of Israel enter the Land of Israel crossing The Jordan.  This story is a replay of the crossing of Yam Suf (mentioned only 23 times) but forms the basis of the Jewish people in the Land of Egypt.  During the crossing, they take 12 stones from The Jordan to make one monument.  The Jordan makes us one people.

#2:  Elijah the prophet leaves the people of Israel by ascending into the sky near The Jordan.  Elijah leaves his leadership role and his life when he crosses The Jordan.  The
Children of Israel, the country of Israel, need a new face, Elisha, one which will connect more strongly with the struggles of the people.  The role of The Jordan here is to cement the leader, Elisha, with the national experience. Leaders who can no longer be effective, such as Elijah, are destined to die on the other side of The Jordan, symbolizing their distance from the Jewish people.

#3:  The Jordan provides healing for the Aramite king, Naaman who is afflicted by leprosy.  He comes for a cure to Elisha and Elisha tells him to go and wash in the waters of The Jordan.  The Jordan is muddy and Naaman becomes angry.  “Are not the waters of the rivers of Damascus,  better than all the waters of Israel?”  But sometimes being a Mighty River is not the best medicine.  Leprosy, associated in the Bible with speaking improperly, can be cured by a bit of humility.   Dunking 7 times in the murky waters of The Jordan takes one down a notch, and works wonders (literally for Naaman).  This reminds us that this important body of water is not meant to build up and glorify Israel.

What can we learn from these three stories about The Jordan?  The Jordan is unifying, clarifying and humbling.  This is no ordinary River, meant to be crossed, drank and siphoned off to fields.  This is no mere creek or wash, waiting for us to pray for it to be filled.  The Jordan is a symbol of the Children of Israel as a nation, and as such, the most important body of water that exists. The Jewish people ebbs and wanes, we meander in our path, we are surrounded by thick brush amidst arid land, but we continue to flow.

So next time you are at Qesr al-Yehud, Gesher Bnot Yaacov, or Kayaking in the north, remember you are not encountering a river, rather you are experiencing The Jordan, and it is Mighty indeed.

A Sea of Reeds?

Barbara brought to my attention an apparent crack in my definitions of yam and agam in my earlier post.  How could the Yam Suf be a yam (sea?) if it has suf (reeds?)?  If it has suf, it should be an agam.

Let’s think about the most famous story involving Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds?), that of the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf.  After an arduous period of slavery and 10 grueling plagues, which wiped out the economy of Egypt and left 90% of the Children of Israel dead, the remaining people run for their lives out of Egypt.  After journeying for 3 days away from the comforts and resources of Egypt, they reach Yam Suf.  Up until this point, G-d is continually acting in a way to show his might, not only to the Egyptians but also to the Children of Israel.

Imagine what the Children of Israel were seeing when they stood before the Yam Suf.  What would be the best way for G-d to show His power?  Would they be standing in front of a small pond with lots of reeds (suf)?  How could such a body of water swallow up Egypt’s mighty chariots as described in Exodus 15?

eilat mountainsWe know from the Bible where the Yam Suf is and its description as a border is listed in many places.  Yam Suf is equated with the Red Sea of today.  One of the bordering towns of the Yam Suf is listed as Etzion Gever, near today’s Eilat.  An event which happens on the sea by Etzion Gever gives us another description of not just where the Yam Suf is, but what it is like.

“Yehoshofat (one of the kings of Yehuda) constructed Tarshish ships (a fleet of ships) to sail to Ofir for gold.  But he did not sail because the ships were wrecked (by natural means) at Etzion Gever.”  II Kings 22:49

From this passage, we see that Yam Suf is stormy.  But is the Red Sea stormy?  Most people who visit Eilat would disagree.  Stormy seas are in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Rim, the Straits of Gibralter.  We need to remember, however,  that the Bible only cares about the Levant.  The main yamim here are the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.  Using this as our scale, the Red Sea is the stormiest.  Only 8 years ago, a storm in the Red Sea sank an Egyptian ferry carrying 1300 people.

How then can it be called Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds?  The Atlas Daat Mikra gives an interesting interpretation.  Instead of suf=reeds, think sufa=storm.  That colloborates what we know of Yam Suf from the Children of Israel’s crossing.  It magnifies the miraculous nature of this story; a weakened people comes to a stormy sea pursued by the greatest army of the day.  They cross over on dry land, and the army is swept up in the storm surge.

The result of the fjording of Yam Suf is that the Children of Israel realize G-d’s might, and that all the nations of the world tremble before them.  The way is paved for the birth of a nation.

Two All-Beef Patties, Special Sauce

Last week I led a tour of the Beit Shemesh area. We visited the tomb of Dan (son of Jacob), Mony Winery, Tel Beit Shemesh and Tel Azeka. The particular issue that was the center of the tour was the relationship and interaction between the Children of Israel and the “other” in the past and in the present.

It seems to be human nature to distance ourselves from the other. In the early days of humanity, this was a survival instinct. Loyalty within clans was necessary for interdependence within the clan. Other clans were a rival for collecting fields, hunting grounds, and water sources. Thus, those who were wary of the “other” did better and survived longer than those who did not protect their resources.

In today’s world, xenophobia is seen as a negative. We are raised to be open to others, to try to see their viewpoint and to “not judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. Especially in the light of the modern world and world-wide markets, xenophobia is seen as a throwback to those who are less sophisticated. Success today seems to depend on our abilities to interact with the other.

And yet, our ability to differentiate ourselves, whether that means protecting something as concrete as our own wealth or as abstract as our own culture, is still a very deep-seated need. Thus, the tension. How much do we open up and how much do we hold close?

These themes are echoed in the biblical text. The tribe of Dan, son of Jacob, is not successful in conquering his assigned territory. They cannot overcome the powerful Philistines who live on the coast. Some of the members of the tribe of Dan stay where they are, in the area of Beit Shemesh, and some move North, to the far northern border of today’s State of Israel. Interestingly enough, half of the tribe lives next to the Philistines; half live far, far away – showing two very different approaches to living with the “other”.philistine-me

Dan’s descendent, Shimshon (Sampson) lived in the area of Beit Shemesh at the time of the Judges, a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes. He took a wife from the Philistines and spent his life in a battle of wits and strength against them. He fought the battle against them from the inside, with some successes but mostly tragic failures. He does succeed in destroying some cities and temples, but is ultimately stripped of his strength and is tortured by the Philistine people. (Check out the picture of me dressed up as a Philistine!)

The next biblical character who battles the Philistines is David. David comes to visit his brothers who are in King Saul’s army. King Saul, a king like all the other nations’ kings, is in a standoff with the Philistines. The taunter, Goliath, calls for a singular battle with someone from King’s Saul’s army. King Saul, following well-defined rules of warfare, looks to send someone to battle with Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.

David’s reaction to the Philistine Goliath is to refuse to play his game. He refuses King Saul’s armor and by doing so has refused to play by the rules – the Philistine rules. David has his own game, that of a slinger; and it is as a slinger that he has the upper hand on Goliath. It is an interesting example of David retaining his uniqueness and his shepherding outlook even in the battleground. He does not fit into the shoes of the “other” neither by King Saul’s cajoling nor by Goliath’s taunting. This is something that David continues into his kingship. King David is beloved and respected because he is not “kingly”. He realizes that he can do wrong and apologizes for his misdeeds. This is a revolution in the ancient world where the king was considered at the very least above the law, if not an actual godly being who could do no wrong.

Now we get to modern Israeli society. How would a researcher today decode the complex relationship between Israeli culture and the dominant power, the United States? I decided to gauge influence based on the index of how many McDonald’s there are per population and on obesity statistics.

In the United States, there are 22,000 people for every McDonald’s branch. Discounting countries with less than 200,000 population, Israel comes in tied with Austria for 6th place, with 45,000 residents per McDonald’s. (Canada-24K, Australia-25K, New Zealand-27K, Puerto Rico-34K) Although I realize that there are many other factors which go into how many McDonald’s there are in any given country, it gives a sense of the interaction that Israel feels with the wider world.

Yet, despite Israel’s relatively high density of McDonald’s, according to the World Health Organization, Israel is 30th when those same countries (over 200,000 population) are ranked by the percentage of overweight or obeseness within her populace while the United States is 1st on this list. Israel has managed to maintain some sort of unique lifestyle which counters our McDonald’s ranking. We are at one and the same time trying to maintain our unique character while fitting into the wider world.

These somewhat silly statistics show the complex relationship between Israel and the outside world which continues until today – an extension of the tension played out on this same soil in the times of the Bible. Is Israel today more of a Sampson or more of a David? All-Beef Patties or Special Sauce?  Maybe both.

The Most Daring Thing

“My servant, Moses, is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to Bnei Israel.”  Joshua 1:2

Over the past week, I embarked with 17 others on a classic Israeli journey called Yam L’Yam. The trip starts at the Mediterranean Sea and 85 or so kilometers later (about 55 miles) ends at the Sea of Galilee. Our goal – to have a great time, enjoying the beauty of Israel and the company of friends as we traveled across Israel. We planned for the last few months, some of our group went on practice hikes with packed bags on Fridays, we had planning meetings and google docs and yahoo groups. We made reservations, gathered up the gear we thought we needed, checked the maps, read blogs.

The hike is generally done in 3, 4, or 5 days. (Although I have a friend who has a friend who said he did it in one, 22-hour day – if it sounds like a fish tale, it probably is one.) Since our group ranged in age from 13 to 60, and we wanted to do it in one week so we could be home for Shabbat, we decided to plan the 4 day option – Monday through Thursday. We would use Sunday as a travel day to get to the beginning of the trail, and hire a mini-bus to take us home on Thursday night. This expedition would take the place of our annual summer “Friends’ Vacation”, a time that we generally dedicate to hiking, touring and having a good time together. This trip would vary from our standard vacation – we would be sleeping outside most nights, carrying our gear, and relying on our wits and our feet to carry us along. No one brought a car.


yam l'yam train

It’s interesting traveling in a group with 18 people. Although we spend a decent amount of time together generally, being together 24 hours a day is a different experience. Moving 18 people, feeding 18 people, taking care that no one is left behind emotionally, physically, or mentally is sometimes a challenge and


requires a good amount of patience and empathy.


Building community is one of my life’s focuses. I came to Israel seeking to be a part of a community, and have found satisfaction for the last 19 years in helping to build community locally in Chashmonaim and nationally. I build webs of people who genuinely care about each other, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. Much of my work over the past 19 years, especially my work with Taglit/Birthright, focuses on the importance of community affiliation.

Why is community important? Numerous studies show that connection to community lengthens our lives by as much as 14 years! Despite this, and despite the flourishing of electronic communities, people today feel less connected than ever. Average Americans claim to have 1.5 friends on average despite what their Facebook account tells them. Sad.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

As we went through our trek, our group had to deal with many challenges – the heat, the lack of water, our crazily heavy packs, mosquitoes, wild boars, naked Nachmanites at 2:00 A.M. There were fears, anger, and disappointment. Through it all, though, we stuck together as a group, drawing on each other’s strengths to pull us through the challenges. We figured out which changes to our plans needed to be made in order to accomplish our goals – not just our individual goals, but our group goals.

People told us that attempting this hike with so many people was foolish and was sure to end in failure. And maybe for the ME generational outlook, the way our Sea to Sea trek ended would be considered a “failure”. Those of us on the trek understood it much differently. It was a most daring thing and ended in complete success.


The holiday of Passover approaches.  You can feel it in the hot bursts of spring air – sharav as it is called in modern parlance in Israel.  You can feel it in the stores  – extending their hours to accommodate harried shoppers.  You can feel it in your home – as you search for something between spring cleaning and removing all traces of anything leavened.  You can even feel it in your nose and your stomach – as those traditional smells and tastes fill your senses.

But as we are busy feeling the holiday in all these other ways, all these sensual ways, sometimes we forget to feel Passover with our emotions.  This year in getting ready for the holiday, I am trying to focus a bit on what it is about Passover, and specifically the Seder (festive meal) on the first night, that WORKS.  The Jewish people have been more or less celebrating this ceremony for at least the last 3300 years or so, and even in today’s mostly secular Israeli society, Passover Seder is still celebrated
by the vast majority of the country’s Jews.

So what is it that WORKS?

The Passover meal has many components:  wine, matzah, symbolic   foods, family, and story through the recitation of the Hagada.  This story that we tell at the meal is not a simple “Once upon a time” but a complex of many different elements.  But I believe that the many different ways of telling the story – through talmudic discourse,  parable, songs, and all the different forms which exist in the Hagada, all have some common threads.  They are meant to inspire us, to give us hope, and even to nudge us in the right direction.

Inspiration might seem passe in today’s world.  We are all so sophisticated – we know that behind every success lies a lot of hard work and even a lot of sadness.  We have been jaded by the people we admire having really sad lives – movie stars who get involved in drugs, politicians who get caught breaking the law, religious leaders whose personal lives are devoid of religion, athletes who abuse their own bodies.

Even our own children and their peers are not exempt.  Youth was once the symbol of endless possibility, but now is more likely to be associated with trouble, gangs and unplanned pregnancy.  Young adults today report that although sexual taboos have been erased, they are severely short in the falling-in-love category.  It really hit home when I was walking with a man aged 23 who told me, “I will never be really, really happy.”  Shocking that at age 23, he had already given up.

The Hagada comes to change all that.  Once the Jewish people were at the bottom.  The very bottom.  The 49th level of despair (out of 50).  The Hagada comes to share the success story.

And to inspire us.

Not just to inspire us to climb out of whatever pit we are in, but also to  inspire us to gather positive energy from our own  stories. Every person has an inspiring story.  Our stories make up who we are, where we have been, and our outlook on where we are going.  We don’t often take the time to articulate those stories, elaborate on those stories and even tweek them a bit to make them better stories (we will probably claim that actually, that is the way it happened….).  Sometimes, sadly, we even forget that we have those stories.

This year at the Passover Seder, ask the person next to you to share their own personal “Hagada”.  If they are shy, wait until they have had a glass of wine or so.  Life is good and there are amazing stories of blessing and persistence, survival and overcoming hurdles.  And they are jumping in the waves with you, walking around the store with you, cleaning your house with you, sitting next to you at your Passover seder – just listen and share.  Life is good.

checking rice pesach 2012Chag Sameach!  Happy Passover!

Bringing Sites to People

One thing that you learn in the Tour Guide course is where things are. We all dutifully write down exact directions on how to get to those familiar and not-so-familiar sites, where to park the bus, where to find the bathrooms. By studying all these notes, one becomes very good at bringing the people to sites which they may find interesting. We also learn which sites will speak to different groups in order to build itineraries with sites that are appropriate.

We learn how to bring people to sites

But not how to bring sites to people.

When you are interested in bringing sites to people, first you need to know who the participants are from where they are coming – not just in a geographical sense, but also in a more sociological, demographic sense.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of guiding an extended family group, here in Israel celebrating the grandfather’s birthday. There were quite a number of little kids, some teens, some adults. I suggested to them a day which centered around events in I Samuel 4 – the story of Even HaEzer. The first site was Izbet Sartah, an out-of-the-way site that I was pretty sure would be a new destination for both the Israelis and the visitors in the group.

I have guided Izbet Sartah before, but only for groups of adults. Generally, I talk about three themes there – development of domestic architecture and its impact on society, early Hebrew alphabet and the presence of scribal tradition in an early agricultural community, and the story of Even HaEzer. My challenge yesterday was how to convey those same three themes to the under 8 crowd.

First I tackled the issue of the alphabet. I took a ceramic planter from my yard that was already broken and smashed it creating pottery shards. I gave each person a marker, a shard and a copy of the early Hebrew letters which were found in Izbet Sartah in the abecedary from the 13th century B.C.E. and had them write their name in this ancient script. While they were writing, I was able to walk around to the adults and give them a bit more content.

Secondly, the family members put on a play about the story of Izbet Sartah. I brought a script, costumes, props and divided out the parts. They took a few minutes to organize themselves and then put on the play for the few spectators. They even had a camera man!

Lastly, each family tried to find one room of the four-roomed house which was excavated in Izbet Sartah. After each family “staked out” their room, we talked about the function of each room and what it would have looked like 3000 years ago.

Each group I guide has its own unique character. The goal is to try to bring sites, history and context alive so it is accessible to the group you are currently guiding.

Knowing facts and mountains of information is cool; but seeing someone connect with what you are telling them, beats everything.