Desert Wanderings

A friend of ours up here in the north of Israel wanted to tour the Negev area for a few days before he moved back to the States. He rented a large apartment just southeast of Beersheva and said we could come down and take one of the guest bedrooms. So, why not? We jumped at the opportunity. In my last blogpost, I wrote about the Yatir Forest, an immense manmade forest planted in the desert and an organic herb farm and world-class winery there. But there were more surprises in the land of Bedouins and camels than just the Yatir Forest.

John and I have taken upon ourselves to read through the entire Scriptures in one year. And not just to read the Bible, but to visit as many of the sites mentioned as we could. We wanted to get a real feel for the Land, the People and the stories – up close and personal – to be able to internalize what we’ve been reading. What an incredible gift it has been!!! In the books of Kings and Chronicles, especially, as we read through the actual historical accounts, I kept coming across qthe term ”high places.” It was a term I just glossed over and took for granted. Tel Arad changed that.

A high tel or hill(Hebrew) rises from the wide expanse of desert plain. It is a perfect spot, once settled and fortified, for defense because it provides a 360* lookout. It is one of the high places. Tel Arad is made up of two components: at the base of the mountain are the ruins of an ancient Bronze Age civilzation dating back to the third millenium BCE with a large Canaanite city built over it, and at the top, a huge fortified city from the Israelite period and time of the kings (12th century – 6th century BCE).

Why the Bronze Age inhabitants disappeared, know one knows, but the Canaanites built over top the remnants 1500 years later. A thick, double-layered wall runs along the perimeter of the village at the tel’s base. At various intervals along the wall and at the entrances to the city were once semicircular guard towers. A deep well and cistern which collected the rain runoff provided water for this desert community. Close in proximity to the Dead Sea, the Canaanites traded asphalt from there to the Egyptians who used it for mummification. There is evidence of small one-story and two-story residences, as well as larger living complexes with severals rooms and courtyards. There was a cultic worship area with the remains of two platforms with altar and nearby basins as well as shrine areas for idol worship. Arad is first mentioned in the Torah, in Numbers 21:1-3 ”…the Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard from the spies that Israel had entered the land. And he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners…and Israel conquered them and their cities.”

Climbing up the mountain was no small feat for me, but eventually we reached the smaller, square Israelite fortress constructed during the reign of King Solomon. It was built as a royal citadel to block any invaders, Moabites and Edomites from the Southern Negev coming into Judah. Two incredibly important discoveries were unearthed here that cement Arad to its Biblical references. The first finding was a pile of 107 ostraca, pottery shards of historical account and basic bookkeeping written in Both Hebrew and Aramaic. Some contain instructions for the disbursement of grain, oil and water to the troops stationed there. Others, dated to 600 BCE, were letters written to the commander of the garrison, Eliashiv son of Eshiahu. A seal was also found here bearing his name. Another had an inscription which mentioned a ”House of YHVH” that was there.

During the period of the Israel’s kings – found in the Bible in the first and second books of Kings as well as in First and Second Chronicles – several of the rulers decided of their own volition to build their own temples, alternatives to traveling to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount for Jewish worship, sacrifice and pilgrimage. The temple at Arad is a perfect example of this. With our guidebooks, our Bible and well-marked signs (in English!), we were able to fully comprehend what we were seeing.

Not built according to the standards given by G-d to the Jewish people for authentic worship, the Tel Arad temple is completely out of scale and layout for the Holy Temple. This place was an extra-Biblical Jewish-pagan hybrid. It did have an altar for sacrifice and an inner sanctum, their version of the Holy of Holies. Two incense altars and a standing stone (the originals are now in the Israel Museum) were found in situ. The incense altars had a cannabis/frankensence remains, so was used for enhancing ecstatic states. There were two standing stones: a monument to G-d and one, a shrine to, Asherah, a pagan fertility god.

“And in every city in Judah he (King Ahaz) built high places to burn sacrifices to other gods and aroused the anger of the Lord, the G-d of his ancestors.”

– 2 Chronicles 28:25

“ In the seventh year of Jehu, Jehoash began to reign for forty years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Tziviah of Beersheva. And Jehoash did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him. But the high places were not taken away: the people still sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places.

– 2 Kings 12:1-3

During Josiah’s rule, the high places with their cultic worship were torn down, the temple at Tel Arad was buried, but this would only be temporary. It would be uncovered under successive kings and rededicated. Despite the warnings of the prophets, the high places were never fully destroyed. Under Israeli King Jehoash, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar would sweep down and destroy the Southern Kingdom, taking the Jewish people away captive in 598 BCE.

Centuries after the Jews abandoned Tel Arad, the Greek Hellenists, then the Romans claimed the mountaintop. Both invading armies built on top of the Hebrew’s fortress, reclaiming the parts that were still intact. It fell into disuse over the years, then was retaken by the Ottoman Turks. Eventually that, too, was abandoned.

The December sun was casting long shadows as the afternoon grew on, and we had to meet our friend in Beersheva for dinner. It was a good half an hour drive back and Marc had found a wonderful authentic Indian restaurant, vegan and kosher. It’s name Hodoo haK’tannah, Little India in Hebrew. It’s owners are members of the tribe of Menashe, whose wanderings took them to at part of the world for nearly 2000 years. Most of the Bnei Menashe have returned home to Israel in the past 18 years, and are observant Jews. We ate out of doors and the food kept coming. Most was highly spiced, but we shared dish after dish of deliciousness. After this grand adventure, I was thoroughly stuffed… and completely exhausted, but couldn’t wait to see what surprises the next day’s travels would bring.

Making the Connection

IMG_0862The United States today is facing a time of the erasure of its history; “cultural misappropriation” and confusion; fractioned families; identity confusion. Colleges and universities have been taken over by waves of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Boycott, Divest and Sanction programs against Israel. There has been an ongoing bias in the UN and in the media against Israel.  Also, there has been a growing shift towards secularism and away from any and all religion. How then to connect the Jewish young adult to his/her heritage? How does one foster a connection to Judaism, to the land of Israel, to awaken a dormant spirituality, to create a sense of heritage, belonging, and identity?

Aaron Botzer, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s has done exactly that. From humble beginnings in the scenic mountain town of ancient Tsfat in the Upper Galilee, Aaron has cobbled together an amazing program for Jewish young adults. Livnot U’Lehibanot, Build and Be Built, is a program like no other in Israel. It is a holistic, physically and spiritually challenging Jewish experience that connects the participants to their heritage and community in an open environment. Combining hiking through the beautiful countryside while learning about the history, the land, the ecological balance, and the flora and fauna is only one experience to feed the soul. Through nature, hands-on experiences, seminars, connection to the local community, field trips, and unique cultural opportunities, the soul is elevated and can make connections not otherwise drawn.

Situated in the mystical city of old Tsfat, which is literally built atop layers and layers of history provides another advantage. Not only are the youth able to enjoy the artsy and spiritual vibes of this unique place, but the Livnot Center itself, is built on a most amazing archaeological site, the Kahal. Located on a 700 square meter site, in the heart of Tsfat’s ancient, Jewish quarter, are underground stone passageways and tunnels leading to rooms, structures, ritual bathing pools (mikvaot), synagogues, and homes from the 16th century, Tsfat’s Golden Age. The participants in this program spend time actually working on the ongoing excavations and renovations of the site. It provides a unique hands-on opportunity to connect with the past as well as to enjoy all that it offers in the present. There is a large communal hall that has been unearthed and restored. It contains wood-burning ovens from the 1500s, where today, pizza is made and challah is baked. The carved-out stone seating area along the walls of this spacious stone room is lined with richly colored Middle Eastern pillows and cushions – a perfect place for seminars, musical concerts and just hanging out.

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Livnot U’Lehibanot is not only concerned with the past, but community service programs and opportunities to volunteer within the local communities provide a link to present-day Israel. There are seminars and group discussions led by leading experts in different fields. Also, there are interactive workshops, in art and music, challah making, cooking, folk dance, ecology and sustainability, and spirituality. Fantastically fun and spirit-filled Shabbat celebrations are another highlight of the program. There are classes in leadership training as well, as the future leaders of society make up the different groups.

This life-changing program is not affiliated with any particular denomination of Judaism, which is very unique here in Israel. The philosophy behind this is that all denominations have the ability to influence one another for the good of all. There is no pressure on the youth to go one way or another, just to enjoy and grow from the experience. There are many different paths of Jewish spirituality that vary from individual to individual. It is quite open-minded in its holistic approach, which helps bridge many gaps. Ultimately, to form a bond with the Almighty, with Judaism, and with the land of Israel is the ultimate goal. Here, the young adult will meet many different people from all over the world – not just the States, but Europe, South Africa, Canada, Australia and South America. Trained mentors oversee the activities in a safe and fun environment.

The Livnot programs consist of short term 1 week, 2 weeks, and 6 weeks intensives. Each group consists of no more than 24 youth. The intensives are highly subsidized by generous patrons, making it very affordable indeed (a full week including room and board is only $195/ a six week course runs $500). It is perfect for the person who has made a Birthright trip and wants something more – to take that adventure to a higher level.  There are winter programs, running from December through February; summer programs from May through August; and special holiday programs. Perfect for the university student as well as the post graduate, who is looking for a different kind of spiritual experience. To date, over 1000 alumni of Livnot have completed the program and have gone on to become active young professionals and lay leaders in their own communities back home.

“In retrospect, there has probably been no single life experience                     that has had such a profound effect on my life. I was able to discover what a gold mine was out there for Jewish souls. Shabbat evening, with its candles and sensual setting, was a profound experience of peace and belonging, connection and fulfillment. My life has been forever transformed.”   Avi R., Program T25

” I am reminded of how one week in Tsfat set me on the path of personal legacy. Livnot has been the catalyst of my Jewish journey…my program showed me that being Jewish isn’t about scrambling to save people from being washed out by modern society, but rather that we are privileged to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to a thriving, growing family and culture that is infused with thousands of years of spirituality and wisdom.”  Abigail C., Program 256

“Life altering is an understatement!”   David B., Program 126

For more information, as a potential participant, or to donate – contact www.livnot.org

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