In July, I spent two weeks in Israel.
It was packed with vibrant experiences, religious and secular. It is a land with so many places that matter to people of many faiths. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship freely there now, but there has been conflict over those holy places for millennia.
That land and those religions matter. Maybe for different reasons, but no less intensely for the children of Abraham. There is a fierce attachment to the land and people are willing to go through much to be there.
Our group prayed, together and alone, at the Western Wall of Temple Mount. We celebrated Shabbat (the Sabbath) on Friday night on the Southern Steps of the Mount, literally shadowed by the Al Aksa mosque and its congregants, also worshiping above us. We walked along the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion. The Stations of the Cross along that route were marked, both with signs and with worn down spots, where pilgrims rest their hands and maybe their hearts in prayer, for centuries.
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We visited Mount Zion, which has religious significance for all three Abrahamic religions; The Tomb of David, a Mosque and a room where the Last Supper is commemorated. We toured the Al Jazzar Mosque in Akko (Acre) just before afternoon prayers, and encountered Eritrean pilgrims singing hymns, as they walked with us in the tunnels of Hezekiah leading from the City of David to Temple Mount.
People are drawn to these places as touchstones. There are so many commemorations of faith, suffering and hard choices made both long ago and maybe only last week.
We spent time in the Judean desert, at Masada. The landscape is a starkly unending variation of rock and sandy browns undulating off to the distant blue ribbon that is the salty Dead Sea. There was no green to be seen; no water anywhere. My group walked in the steps of history, through the remains of buildings, with fragments of mosaics and paint preserved in the arid air for nearly 2,000 years. We examined Herod's construction from 37 BCE, and learned about the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 70 CE, ending on top of Masada with the besieged rebels cornered there.
Masada is the Hebrew word for fortress. It and the surrounding Judean desert are harsh and forbidding. Daytime temperatures often rise above 100 degrees. The desert demands much of anyone trying to survive there. It must have required even more of the few Hebrews atop that plateau, watching the huge Roman Army constructing a wall first around their mountain, then launching a ramp aimed at breaching their walls on top. There were no easy options for the Hebrews trapped there. They knew that the Romans would eventually break through and either kill them, or carry them off to a life of slavery. When the Romans finally entered Masada, they found that the defenders had chosen death rather than life as slaves to Rome. It was more important to this band of faithful Jews to die in freedom than live in slavery.
In the Torah, God frequently calls the Jews a stiff-necked people. The Masada story fits, doesn’t it? A group of people determined to live, or die, by their convictions and for their beliefs. They viewed that life deprived of their ability to live and worship freely as a life not worth living. Perhaps living atop the harsh landscape of Masada gave those rebels a clearer vision of their values and how to live them.
Is that story much different now? In the 1970s and ‘80s, Russian Jews, and others, gave up their careers, risked jail and worse when they applied to leave the Soviet Union. Lana, our Israeli guide’s parents, did that to get their family to a life of freedom. They were called Refuseniks. They were persecuted for their beliefs but did not give up.
Is that so much different from what is happening to many people fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? What would you sacrifice to get your family to a place to live and worship freely? For the people living through the crucible burning there now, it’s a daily confrontation.
A few years ago, Rabbi and author Daniel Gordis wrote, "Life isn't about staying alive, it's about believing in something that matters while you are alive."
And acting upon it.
Edie Yakutis is a lay leader at Temple Solel in Fort Mill: firstname.lastname@example.org.