Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Desert Experience


Today was our desert experience. The area to the south along the Dead Sea is some of the most arid land I have ever seen. It rivals Death Valley - minus sand dunes. In their place are high, rocky mesas built up of layers of sediment from the waters the once covered the land. We traveled most of the distance below sea level, leaving early in the morning to precede the intense heat of the day. We passed through Jericho and Qumran – the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and could see from the highway a cave where some of them were found.

Masada has a rich place in Jewish history – not in a religious sense, but in the sense of the pride of the people and the narrative of the Jewish ethos.

Masada sits high on a plateau, thousand of feet above ground, but in actuality, only 33 meters above sea level. We rode to the summit on a graceful cable car, rising 900 meters from the building where we embarked. There is also a serpentine trail to the summit, which at one time was a narrow pathway that could only be traversed by carefully placing one foot in front of the other, or risking a very quick and rocky end to one's life. The trail now has both paths and stairs, but is still a climb for an athlete and not a "wuss" like me. None of group climbed up, but seven did walk down, taking 40 minutes to do so. I opted for the cable car.

According to Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian, this was the site of the last bastion of the Jewish freedom fighters at the end of the second temple era. These people had inhabited the top of this mountain that had once been one of the palaces of Herod. The Romans attacked the Jews by building a ramp up one side of the mountain along with a very high structure with a battering ram to break down the walls that protected the fortress.  When the Jews knew they would be defeated, they made a chilling decision: they would not allow them to be taken into slavery or be slaughtered by the Romans. They did not want their women abused, nor did they want their children to taste slavery, so they chose to kill one another. When the Romans reached the summit and broke through the wall, they found all of them dead, with the exception of two women and five children who were found hiding in the cistern.

Because there is so little rainfall, the buildings have remained in excellent condition, making it possible to fully understand the lives that were lived here - first by Herod the Great and secondly by the Jewish rebels.

The story of Masada  is one of triumph - even in loss, and is a symbol of the Jewish spirit, especially in this country of intense national pride among the Israelis.

Floating in Water
It was hot in Masada, so it was now time for a swim, or I should say, a float. Off we went to the Dead Sea, visiting a spa – resort along the shores of this unique body of water. It is much larger than I imagined, and as we look across to the mountains on the other said, we were looking at the coastline of Jordan.

Floating on the Dead Sea was a trip! You can recline in the water, and completely relax. It was difficult to get my feet back down to the bottom so that I could stand up again.  The water is intensely salty. I got some in my mouth and it was unpleasantly strong tasting!
The bottom and the shore are very rough, as they are covered with mounds of salt crystals, so I wore my flip flops into the water. The seawater was warm, but very pleasant. My skin feels velvety soft from all the minerals.

There was also a huge vat of brown mud on the shore which we all rubbed over our arms and legs, then showered off with more salty, then fresh water. The final step was a plunge into a large fresh water pool, then back to the dressing rooms for a shower and our departure from the spa.  The outdoor temperature was over 100 degrees but the humidity was so low that it didn’t feel hot until we got back into the minibus.

As we drove along the road, we saw camels with their babies, and the beautiful rams (Ibis) that have the horns that make the shofars. We went through an area where many of the Bedouins have their tent villages, even watching a sheepherder running to catch up with his sheep as they were descending from a hillside.
What an amazing trip!

I Come to the Garden

it's Saturday now, Shabbat Shalom! our morning began with a short walk down a steep hill to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the same name. What a perfect morning for this! it is pleasntly warm here, as it has been during our entire stay.
The garden itself is small, but the olive trees within the garden are believed to be over 900 years old. I have never seen such thick trunks on an olive tree. The trees are surrounded by short pathways, and beautiful roses and other flowers. It is peaceful there. It is, of course, the place where Jesus went to pray, asking that this cup be taken from him. Instead, he also said the Sacred "yes," knowing that what was before him would be hugely difficult.

In this same garden came Judas Iscariot with the Roman soldiers, to arrest him. 

The story goes that Peter, in his rage, cuts of the ear of Malchius, the slave of the High Priest. Jesus tells him this is not the time for anger, and heals the ear. Even in his final hours, he was an advocate for peace.


King Herod the Great loved building monuments to himself. First was Masada, then Herodyon, which is also believed to be his burial site. Since there was no cable car in sight, we hiked to the top of the mountain where he had built another palace that included a very deep series of caves which housed the royal cistern. It was later occupied by Jewish rebels who had also built a synagogue on the site. We took the stairs down into the cistern - some steps made of iron and modern, some old and uneven down into the earth to see where water was stored and where later in time the Jewish rebels had hidden themselves.

The Shepherd's Field

Leaving the Herodyon, we drove across Jerusalem back through the checkpoint into Bethlehem in Palestine to visit the field where the shepherds were to have seen the angels.
Although Palestine is predominately Arab, there are Muslim and Christian districts. The Shepherd's Fields are in the Christian district, and the land is cared for by the Franciscans.
Sammy, our driver knew where to find us a guide, and this man was outstanding. I would love to be able to tell you his name, but I can't pronounce it much less spell it. He walked us into the beautiful grounds of the lovely old church, and took us into a nearby cave. He told us about the way that the early people of this are lived in houses that were built on top of a cave, and that the shepherds of that area used these caves for shelter in the night.
Again, we were on a hilltop - is there a theme here?

What was most interesting to us was entering a large cave that represented a possible scenario for the birth of Jesus. The cave was open and spacious at the front, and became more narrow at the back. a small fence separated the back are, which was where the people brought their animals to stay warm and safe at night. When Jesus was born, and there was no room in the inn, the stable itself would have been in a cave like this. Mary, in her need for privacy, would have gone to the back of the cave to give birth, which explains why Jesus was laid in a manger. The stories are so practical when one actually sees how they came about.

Tonght we will be guests in a Palestinian home, just as we had been guests in a Jewish home. Tonight however, we will be the guests of Dr. Mohammed Dajani, founder of the Wasatia movement, which is offering an alternative to the muslims of moderation, leading to a peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews. If you want to know more about him and his groundbreaking work, please go to

Our time here is nearly over. We depart for Istanbul tomorrow afternoon. I have so many thoughts about Israel, and hope to articulate them more as I prepare to return home. Have I drawn any conclusions? Maybe not. Do I have a new point of view? Without a doubt, yes, I do. Do I think peace is possible? Perhaps. I think the Palestinian Muslims and Christians are more hopeful than the Israelis. That may come as a surprise to you, but what I have learned has much to do with the narratives that each group tells about themselves and the effect they have on their approach to peace. a lot more listening needs to be done. a lot more non-violent education needs to be presented on all sides, and more opportunities for the children to come together and learn to co-exist. And I cannot possibly express to you the complexities, paradoxes, and contradictions I have seen in my short time here. All I know is that I am so glad I came. I know I have been changed in very significant ways, and I look forward to seeing how my time here will guide me to waht's next in my own vision of facilitating a pathway to peace within and without for all people.
Tomorrow morning before we leave for Istanbul we will be visiting an experimental community where Jews and Arabs are living together in community to work for peace.
Caled Neve Shalom, here is what their web page tells us:

Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is a cooperative village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship. The village is situated equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Until my next post, Shalom, As-Salamu Alaykum, Blessings, Aloha.

PS - Dr. Eisen, who is the head of this trip, just came by to tell me that he wanted to give me his assessment of my participation in this trip. He told me I had contributed a very important and unique perspective, and that he was very glad I had joined the group. For me, this was exactly the kind of trip I wanted - multi-religious, multi-generational, and multi-experienctial. I have received all of that and ore. See you in Istanbul!

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