The Magic of Masada

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-8-10

The place stimulates the kind of imaginary time travel that brings history alive. Walking along the rock-strewn trails, you expect to stumble over another piece of evidence, another link to our past

One Zionist “mitzvah” most Israelis remain committed to, be they more religious or less, left or right, patriotic or cynical, is “kum v’hitalech ba’aretz,” rise and walk the land. This Passover, an estimated three million Israelis became wandering Jews, hiking and picnicking, visiting parks, nature reserves, and — dare we say it – national heritage sites.  Joining the exodus, my family and I went south – and again remembered the lure of the land, the sanctity of this space that has been our national homeland for over 3,000 years.
The highlight was singing in the sunrise at Masada, King Herod’s grand desert fortress which became the Zealots’ Alamo, their last stand during the great Roman rebellion. The visit was culturally and historically meaningful.  We accompanied pop icon David Broza, the owner of S-Curve Records Steve Greenberg and their families – to celebrate Broza’s new album Night Dawn, which S-Curve is distributing. The timing Broza chose for our journey, the second day of Passover, is the day the ancient historian Josephus identifies as the day Masada fell in 73 CE.

Our host, Eitan Campbell, who has worked at Masada for 38 years and is now its director, justifiably bristled at the popular characterization of that moment as a mass “suicide.” Like all good historians, Campbell’s favorite “text” is context; you cannot understand what happened that night 1,927 years ago without considering the fate awaiting the rebels if they fell into Roman hands. The Jewish resistance to Roman rule was tougher than the Romans expected. Spite probably played a part in the Legionnaires even bothering to conquer the desert fortress, and a revenge-spiked slavery – or worse – awaited any Jewish captives.

Choosing to die as free people rather than be slaughtered or enslaved by the Romans, the men of Masada killed their families, then each other. Only the last one alive killed himself.

In the mid-1960s, the legendary archaeologist Yigal Yadin found ostraca – pottery shards – with names on them that probably were the lots the leaders used to organize that night. Noting how the full moon illuminated the mountain-top, Campbell emphasized that Masada’s defenders could look into each other’s eyes right before the moment of death. This intense intimacy reflected an act of love, true communal sacrifice, not the nihilism of despair.

We listened raptly to Campbell, watching the same constellation the 960 Zealots on Masada saw in the last moments of their lives – then seeing the same sunrise the Roman conquerors saw when they burst through the defenses and saw their victory stolen from them. I recalled Natan Sharansky’s insight that Jews and Pentacostalists resisted Soviet oppression most stubbornly because belonging to a community larger than themselves connected them to a national story that weaved their particular biographies into a broader, more lasting tapestry. By visiting Masada, honoring these heroes, and writing new chapters in the Jewish people’s long, proud story, we consecrate their actions, we elevate them from victims to victors.

Broza, who has performed more than twenty sunrise concerts at Masada since 1993, captured the poetry of the moment, feeling the mountain’s majesty. Playing his mega-hit “Mitachat LaShamayim” – under the sky – as we sat beneath the stars awaiting first light, as he played his newest songs from the aptly-titled “Night Dawn,” the songs and the setting created a harmonic convergence. Broza explained that during his first Masada concert, he did not fathom its power, until, as he played into the morning, the sun rose. “All of a sudden, I could see the audience,” he recalled, “and it created this overwhelming connection” as the past and the present, his poetry and their passion, the desert’s beauty and Masada’s message merged.

Despite our technological sophistication, despite our cosmopolitan aspirations, human beings still connect to stories and space, to heroes and values. Even in the 21st century the 19th century romantic nationalists’ equation of rich history + natural beauty + communal ideals = proud people, still works. Too often today, these passions are associated with “the Right” or “the religious.”  But humans are not such abstract thinkers. We need props, markers, anchors, roots, for ourselves and our communities.

Masada’s magic, its mutually reinforcing symphony of symbols, appeals to the heart and the mind, engaging our senses and our soul. Eitan Campbell and his fellow caretakers have preserved the site’s simplicity. With the desert’s natural beauty, the ruins’ grandeur, the story’s profundity, the site sweeps us up.

Masada stimulates the kind of imaginary time-travel that brings history alive. Walking along the dusty rock-strewn trails, it is hard not to scrutinize every rock, expecting to stumble over another piece of evidence, another living link to our past. And while contemplating the story’s meaning, the unhappy, tragic dilemma Masada’s final defenders faced, it is hard not to scrutinize your own life, your own values, wondering whether you would have the courage of your convictions they had, wondering just what core ideals you live for – and which defining beliefs you would be willing to die for.

Of all people, Barack Obama in 2008 praised Zionism as representing “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Obama understood that by coming home, tending roots, engaging history, the once-wandering Jews returned to their more normal condition – while becoming poised for new greatness. This tension between the prose of everyday living and the poetry of potential transformation shapes all liberal democratic nationalist movements. It is a major issue in Zionism, and is part of Masada’s meaning.

The Zealots built dwellings using simple stones next to King Herod’s majestic palaces. Both individually and communally we should build our lives with the simple everyday building blocks for natural living infused with the soaring ideals that help make individual lives meaningful and nations great.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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