On Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the new month, my class on the tribes of Israel traveled through the land allotted to Judah. This is the land that became the majority of kingdom of Judea, as described in the first book of Kings.
At this time of year, at the end of the rainy season, the land is especially beautiful, because the wildflowers are blooming. The southern part of the country celebrates with a series of special events called Darom Adom, the Red South. The events take their name from the kalaniot, or anemone, which is bright red.
Pardes, where I study, was not the only school on the move. At Tel Azeka we competed for space to sit with groups from at least three elementary schools. The students all looked to be ten to twelve years old. One group must have been from a religious school; the boys were all wearing black slacks and white shirts, the uniform of the day on Rosh Chodesh.
From the top of Tel Azeka it was easy to understand the strategic importance of the site. In the time of the Judges and the Kings, it was a border city, between the Israelites in the mountains and the Philistines in the plain. The tel is located just above the Elah Valley. The young shepherd David began his military career in this valley by killing the Philistine champion Goliath with a well-aimed stone from a slingshot. On the far side of the valley, the Mountains of Judea lead off into the distance.
Near the end of the period of the First Temple, the Assyrians conquered and destroyed the city. Azeka was almost the last to fall to king Sennacheriv before his unsuccessful assault on Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt, only to be conquered and destroyed again less than a hundred years later. by the Babylonians. The Babylonians went on to conquer Lachish and then Jerusalem, where they destroyed the Temple and exiled much of the population to Babylonia.
We stood there, admiring the view, and enjoying the antics of the beautiful children. I didn’t envy the teachers, especially the ones trying to corral the boys. I wondered how much the boys in the almond trees absorbed of the teacher’s explanation of the Biblical events.
Here in Israel the Bible isn’t a fusty old book. It’s a living text and a guide to the land these boys and girls walk every day. They may not remember the strategic placement of sites. They may never be able spell Sennachariv or Nebuchadnezzar. But they’ll grow up knowing they live in a beautiful land with thousands of years of history.
And if they’re lucky, it won’t be on next week’s test.
The Judean Desert is small as far as deserts go, but in Jewish history in the land of Israel, it looms large. The Jews traditionally lived in the mountains that form the central ridge of the land, because invaders typically came from the sea. The Philistines and other sea people occupied the flat land closer to the coast; the Crusaders invaded from the coast. In times of trouble, the Jews escaped to the desert. This is where David hid when King Saul sought to kill him and this is where Elijah ran when he was fed up with the people turning their backs on G-d repeatedly. In post-Biblical times, Jews ran to the desert to escape the fury of the Roman Legions at the end of the Great Revolt in 70 CE; it’s where Bar Kochba hid during his rebellion against the Romans sixty-five years later.
Unlike the Negev that comprises the southern part of the country, the Judean desert is at a higher altitude than many of the world’s deserts, being located on a plateau in the mountains of Judea. The high plain is cut dramatically by deep wadis, the river beds that are dry in the summer but carry huge amounts of rapidly flowing water during winter’s flash floods. This week Allen and I saw a small part of it on a jeep ride to the eastern cliff of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea, the lowest point of land on the earth, as part of a One Israel Fund tour.
Eve Harow, our guide, told us the road was paved all the way to the scenic overlook—”recently paved” was the phrase she used. By “recently” I suspected she meant in the last thousand years, as we bounced and jolted along our way. We had only traveled a few miles before all seven of us in the back were holding
the bars bolted to the ceiling of the jeep to help passengers avoid being hurt by the jolts and bumps. In several places we had to go off the road because it had been washed out by a flash flood. The power of the flood waters was clearly visible in the exposed six inch depth of the road paving as we drove past the break, and then back on to the road.
We arrived at our destination, descended from the jeeps, and then walked up a rise to a large succah-like structure. As we approached the top of the hill, we all had the same one word reaction:”Wow!” Before us, at the bottom of a sheer cliff, was the Dead Sea, beautifully blue, not the dull color it iswhen seen close up. On its other side, the mountains of Moab, in Jordan, were a dusty blue, blurry in the haze.
Arye Weinstock, the head of the jeep tours company, did not stop at the shelter, but led us up the hill to its right. The path’s dusty surface was slippery with pebbles, but we were kept from falling off the cliff by a waist high stone wall. At the top of the hill, the wall curved around to our right, protecting us from falling over the edge into the dramatically deep wadi that led to the Dead Sea.
After giving us time to admire the view and take many photographs, Arye oriented us. Below us to the left and slightly north of us lay the town of Mitzpe Shalom, green with irrigated palm trees. To the south was Mineral Beach, where Ahava manufactures cosmetics. It used to be a popular spot for tourists who wanted to float in the heavy salty waters of the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, the sea has been steadily shrinking and sink holes have been opening along its shores, making the beach a dangerous place to visit. Today Mineral Beach is closed.
Like many wadis, the one we stared into had bits of green at the bottom where it crossed the plain to empty into the sea. The small bushes had deep roots and were sustaining themselves on what remained of the last rains, over three months ago.
The desert’s relatively small size makes it seem friendly to inexperienced hikers. Arye told us several stories about the dangers of the desert to the unwary. Because the air is so dry and the sun so hot, you need to carry five liters of water when you go into the desert, advice that too many hikers either ignore, or perhaps never receive. He told us of coming across three German hikers one day when he was driving through the desert. They looked, as he put it, “in a bad way,” so he gave them a bottle of water and some oranges. He told them he had to do something else, but offered to pick them up on his way back a little later. They replied they would be all right and refused his offer of help. They didn’t need his water; they had checked a map and knew that there were a couple rivers nearby. He pointed to the wadi where we stood, steep sided and bone dry. “That’s what a river here looks like.”
The desert mountains were just as dry as the wadi. The plants we saw driving to and from the Dead Sea overlook were dry straw. But somehow the Beduins manage to live here—we passed several of their encampments. The homes looked to be made of sheets of aluminum and tarps. Around each cluster of homes several pickup trucks were parked, and frequently a tank of water as well.
But what amazed me the most were the flocks of goats. Usually the flocks are tended by young boys, who may be responsible for up to a hundred animals or more. Somehow all these goats can find enough to eat on the desolate hills.
Even the desert that looks like a barren waste supports life.