Taking the Moral Out of Masada
This is the view from the "snake" trail up to Masada. You can see the main road north/south road that traverses the Jordan valley on the Israeli side all the way from Eilat to Beit Shan. The photo was taken on my recent trip to Israel on 12/25/06.
Our kids had no trouble with the steep hike. What a pleasure to do it in Winter. The photo was taken at about 2:45 P.M.
What is the meaning of Masada?
For some reason as a teenager, I had taken away from my Masada visit the idea that the cisterns/architecture and general ingenuity were of Jewish origin. But no, that was all of Roman origin. The Jewish inhabitants were just looking for a good place to hide and defend themselves.
The Jewsh story of Masada is about a certain kind of bravery, tenacity, and the kind of courage it takes to commit suicide in advance of your enemy to prevent enslavement/humiliation and/or death at the hand of your enemy.
When we were on top we heard some American kids asking their parents, "So why did they want to die?" Answer from parents: "They didn't want to die. They just wanted to be left alone to live a Jewish life in freedom." I can't re-tell this same version to my own kids. I can't ignore the fact that the Zealots were embattled with the Jewish community as well and were reported to have killed other Jews. I can't jump on board convenient interpretations of history.
Masada is in an amazing setting. It's amazing that they were able to support 1000 souls there and provide for people's food and water. But I also can't help but wonder whether there were not more people than the two woman and five children who hid in the cistern who also didn't want to commit suicide.
Looking out into the desert, seeing the complex patterns cut into the desert landscapes -- wondering about the forces (likely water?) which carved out those patterns -- being with my family, hiking, imagining -- these are the parts of our Masada trip that nourished me.
Once I felt compelled to try to learn a story from Masada that was inspiring. Now I don't feel so compelled. It is another archaeological excavation -- in an amazing location, with a dramatic story. Without the demand that Masada carry a contemporary message, I'm engaged. But if it has to teach me something -- then I'd rather run.
[Read my article about another aspect of my trip which also has to do with the construction of meaning and shifting narratives.]