Posts Tagged ‘desert’
As we drive south from Yerushalayim, passing through the very cradle of Jewish history, with its rolling green hills along the Patriarchs and Matriarchs path or the “Road of Heroism” as it is some times called, we resist the magnetic pull to stop at Gush Etzion or Hevron and continue south, fully cognizant that more Jews walked on this path than on any other road in history.
Soon, after passing the turn off to Hevron, the rolling vineyards give way to another dimension of the Land. The rich vineyards and orchards become sparser and give way to a gradual descent into a dryer, wider expanse. We are entering the borderland of the Judean Desert.
The southern Hevron hills stand as a sentinel facing east and the desert as it rolls down towards the Dead Sea.
Here one can see the desert as far as the horizon.
It is to this land, suspended between civilization and wilderness, that young David sought refuge from a jealous King Shaul. Here he locked horns with Naval HaKarmi and met his wife to be, the wise and beautiful Avigayil.
To think that we are gazing at the very same hills and ravines where this drama took place. The very same hills! It is a place where the Bible truly comes to life.
There is even a new Jewish pioneer town, Carmel, situated just where it was in ancient times. Talk about “the children returning to their borders!” I always find it inspiring to visit one of these villages unannounced. Invariably the residents are only too happy to answer all questions and, more often than not, invite you in for a visit. The smaller and more vulnerable the village, the more hospitable its residents. I have some favorite tiny ones that I just love to bring unsuspecting visitors to. They can not help but be affected, indeed bitten by the spirit.
We come to our destination, Susyia. Today Susyia is a thriving village that attracts students form across Eretz Yisrael to their prestigious schools Its field school is home base for those who come to study the region for a day or a month where. They take their touring very seriously.
Next to modern Susyia is the excavated ancient town of Susyia. In the centuries when Jews were banned from Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem, and from the center of the country, they were forced to cling toan existence on the fringes – like in the South Hevron hills.
Unearthed recently is an entire Jewish town dating back to the times of the Talmud. Homes, ritual baths, guard walls and towers to warn of approaching bandits, wells, burial caves, underground work shops and escape tunnels – an entire town
Perched on the upper part of the town is the synagogue. Resplendent with an intricate weave of moasiac floors depicting Jewish symbols and Hebrew dedications and blessings, it was lovingly revealed by Israeli archeologists a few years ago. To think, a robust Jewish community lived right here where we sit. They prayed and conducted their business just where we stand. For hundreds of years Jews clung to the place until the Moslem conquest and the final expulsion or forced conversions in the seventh century. And today we are back. What a country!
Machtesh Ramon is considered by some to be the most exquisite site on the planet. Located south of Beersheba in the Central Negev, not only is Machtesh Ramon the most spectacular geological sight in Eretz Yisrael, it contains within it some unique geological formations that are not found anywhere else on earth. A machtesh (erosion cirques or box canyon) is a geological window, giving us a look into the Earth’s crust. Unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts, only 7 machteshim have been identified, Machtesh Ramon, Machtesh HaGadol, Machtesh HaKatan and two even smaller ones on Har Harif in the Negev; there are also two in the Sinai.
The term machtesh is a geological term borrowed from the word machtesha “mortar” (as in mortar and pestle). Both the Machtesh Katan (Small) and the Machtesh Gadol (Large) look like mortar bowls in which grains are pounded with a pestle. This “look” holds true for both the Small and the Big Machteshim, but not for Machtesh Ramon which is stretched out and narrows at one end – resembling the shape of an elongated heart.
These enormous, craterlike machteshim are neither meteorite craters nor volcanic calderas, although they are frequently described as craters. Machtesh Ramon is an erosion landform, actually a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single wadi (riverbed). The name Ramon is probably from the Arabic “Ruman” meaning “Romans,” and probably linked to a trail that the Romans built here.
Machtesh Ramon has pretty impressive measurements, making it the largest machtesh in Eretz Yisrael. This makes it the largest on earth as no other part of the globe has this phenomenon. The crater is 45km long, 2-10 km wide (28 miles long and five miles wide) and 500 m deep. Its deepest point is Ein Saharonim (Saharonim Spring) – which also contains the Machtesh Ramon’s only natural water source and sustains much of the wildlife in the machtesh including ibex and onagers.
The onager, or wild ass (the biblical pereh), was an animal that had disappeared from Israel. In 1983, two herds of onagers were successfully re-introduced at two locations: Machtesh Ramon and at another site in the Arava Desert. They are the smallest of wild horses and cannot be domesticated. In Roman times, the meat of an onager was considered a delicacy. Some other animals in the vicinity are leopard, striped hyena, sand fox, Dorcas gazelle and the fat desert rat. A variety of plants grow in the Ramon area, including Atlantic pistachio trees, buckthorn, globe daisy, tulips and other bushes and shrubs.
At the borders of the crater impressive mountains rise. Har Ramon (Mt. Ramon), at the southwest corner of the machtesh, is one of the highest peaks in the Negev (3,400 feet – 1,037 m.), Har Ardon (Mt. Ardon) at the north-eastern end, and two table-like mountains – Har Marpek (Mt. Marpek – “Elbow”) and Har Katum (Mt. Katum – “Chopped”) are along the southern wall. Giv’at Ga’ash, a black hill in the north of the machtesh was once an active volcano.
Shen Ramon (Ramon’s Tooth) is made of molten rock which hardened while underground. This black sharp-edged rock later rose up through cracks in the Earth’s surface, and today stands in striking contrast to the nearby creamy colored southern wall of the crater. In the centre of the machtesh is Ha-Minsara (The Carpentry Shop), a low hill made up of black prismatic rocks. It is the only place in the world where prisms made of heated sand turned into liquid – and then when cooled naturally formed rectangular and hexagonal prisms that look like woodchips left behind by an indifferent carpenter. Also, vertical dikes of magnum that squeezed upward through fissures can be seen at various spots through the machtesh.
The ruins of a large prehistoric stone structure known as Khan Saharonim are found in the Machtesh. It lies along the ancient Incense Route, a trade route used by the Nabateans, and is the remains of a caravanserai, a roadside inn where the travelers would rest and recover from the day’s arduous journey. Dozens would gather and camp together and regroup before moving forward in an effort to protect themselves from bandits hiding out in the desert. These ruins acted as a way station for the traders and their animals (khan is the Arabic word for a caravansary) as they proceeded further westwards to the Mediterranean seaport city of Gaza. Not far away to the north are the ruins of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat.
At the end of last week, for the first time in its history, free democratic elections were held in Libya for the 200 members of the Transitional Legislative Council; 120 “independent” members, meaning representatives of tribes and cities, and 80 representatives from nationwide political parties. As of this writing, the official results have still not been publicized, but according to the assessment of observers, Islamic forces have won a minority of seats in parliament. It should be mentioned that during the past year a Salafi jihadist stream led by Abd al-Hakim Belhadj appeared in Libya, which was a cause of very great concern to some external observers.
Libya is a desert country, part of the dry, arid Great Sahara Desert. Life in the desert constrains its residents to live within a family framework, the size of which is limited by available sources of livelihood in the desert environment. Near a spring and its vegetation, which provides food and drink for them and their flocks, they would prefer to remain within a larger framework which would enable them to defend the sources of their livelihood. But in this arid environment of scant resources, they practice that which Abraham said to Lot in the Judean Desert “Please part from me” (Genesis 13: 9) and thus they live within smaller frameworks. The smaller the group, the more solidarity, toughness and cruelty is demanded in order to defend itself, its sources of livelihood and the honor of its daughters and wives from outsiders,
In Libya there is another factor which has had the effect of increasing tribal cohesion, and this is the dictatorial control of Qadhaffi. In the context of life under a dictator, in which the tribe also serves as a defense of the individual against the oppression of the regime, the regime must work with the tribe, which defends the individual, in such a way as to arrive at agreements with the tribe and to honor its autonomy, its leaders and its laws and customs. The desert tribe gives its members immunity from the state apparatuses; the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev vis a vis the Israeli government and in Sinai vis a vis the Egyptian government, are a good examples of this.
The conditions of the desert together with the dictatorship of Qadhaffi created a situation where the great majority of the Libyan population was engaged in an ongoing battle against the forces of nature and the cruelty of man. This situation strengthened the tribal frameworks and turned them into fearless and merciless fighting militiamen. The difficulties create toughness, the battle justifies violence and the problems strengthen solidarity. This situation explains why Qadhaffi had to be so cruel in order to impose his rule upon the population, because there must be a match between the level of violence practiced by a society and the violence that a regime must use in order to subdue a society to submit to his authority for an extended period. There are rumors in Libya that the number of kalashnikovs possessed by the populace is twice the number of residents. Even if this rumor is an exaggeration, it is not far from the bitter and violent reality of this state, because people have weapons and will use them whenever a disagreement arises between them, and where a society engages in blood feuds, it is very difficult to put an end to them, and they continue for a long time and cause many casualties.
The Western democratic model is built on a basic rule, which is that everyone – individuals as well as groups – is constrained not to act with violence but to conduct disagreements and conflicts between them in a legitimate way, not by violence. Another rule is the importance of the individual who goes to the poll and votes according to his conscience, not according to the dictates of his family. However the elimination of the tribal framework and its function is an impossible task in the short run, and therefore young democracies must allow traditional, ethnic, tribal, religious and sectarian frameworks to express themselves, within a young democratic system. This forces it to fight for its legitimacy and survival vis a vis long-standing frameworks that are traditional, legitimate, strong, and sometimes violent .
Hashem criticized His holy nation relentlessly, yet Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, observes that for 38 of Israel’s 40 years in the desert, Hashem expressed no criticism at all. Herein is a lesson in Israel’s greatness.
“And the sons of Israel, all the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, in the first month” (20:1).
Thirty-eight years have elapsed since the episode of Korach. Miriam passed away in the first month of the fortieth year since the Exodus, Aharon passed away in the fifth month and Moshe passed away in Adar, the twelfth month (Megillah 13b).
From the preceding section of the parah adumah until now, no events or prophecies are recorded in the Torah, and by now all the generation of the episode of the meraglim have passed away (Rashi, lbn Ezra). No complaints are mentioned, and even by the very stern standards of Hashem no fault is found in the nation.
This lack of criticism is actually an immense encomium both for the old and for the new generation. In view of the supremely exalted standards required by Hashem, and considering the scathing criticism to which the generation had been so frequently subjected, the absence of any comment for this period of 38 years is actually a declaration of extraordinary commendation.
The severe chastisements proved a great blessing for this holy nation, for the people gained in greatness from each episode until they rose to the heights of perfection Bilaam recognized when he spoke the words of Hashem’s sublime approbation.
A great question arises: How can the psalm declare “Forty years have l quarreled with this generation; and they knew not My ways” (Tehillim 95:10)? For 38 of these 40 years not a word of criticism is written in the Torah, except in the episode of the daughters of Moab (25:1). Especially when we consider the words of Bilaam (23:8-4:9), this crushing expression of disapproval seems wholly unjustified.
It is clear that the Torah is written so as to serve as a stimulus to remorse and penitence forever. Just as the pious Jew beats his breast and recites on Yom Kippur a confession of a list of sins he had not committed, so also does our nation read the Torah contritely and flagellate its conscience for national sins which actually would be the pride and boast of any other people had they performed so few misdeeds as those for which Israel is castigated so severely.
“It is better for the righteous ones when Hashem shows His wrath in this world” (Shabbos 30a), and because of the stern disapproval shown to this greatest of all generations they became the most perfect in history. But all the castigations are merely the Face of Hashem. What actually was in the Mind of Hashem?
For the answer, we have recourse to the superlative declaration of Hashem’s eternal love, as enunciated by our archenemy Bilaam (23:7-24:17).
Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.
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It is a scene that still has the power to shock and disturb. The people complain. There is no water. It is an old complaint and a predictable one. That’s what happens in a desert. Moses should have been able to handle it in his stride. He has been through far tougher challenges in his time. Yet suddenly he explodes into vituperative anger:
“Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. (Numbers 20: 10-11).
It was such egregious behavior, so much of an overreaction, that the commentators had difficulty in deciding which aspect was worst. Some said it was hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. Some said it was the use of the word “we.” Moses knew that God would send water; it had nothing to do with Aaron or with Moses himself. Others, most famously Maimonides, said that it was the anger evident in the words “Listen now, you rebels.”
The questions I want to raise are simply these: What made this trial different? Why did Moses momentarily lose control? Why then? Why there? These questions are entirely separate from that of why Moses was not allowed to enter the land. Although the Torah associates the two, I argue elsewhere that this was not a punishment at all. Moses did not lead the people across the Jordan and into the land because that task, involving a new generation and an entirely new set of challenges, demanded a new leader. Even the greatest figures in history belong to a specific time and place. “Dor dor u’parnasav – Each generation has its own leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a). Leadership is time-bound, not timeless.
Behind Moses’s loss of emotional control is a different story, told with utmost brevity in the text: “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community…” Moses lost control because his sister Miriam had just died. He was in mourning for his eldest sibling. It is hard to lose a parent, but in some ways it is even harder to lose a brother or sister. They are your generation. You feel the angel of death come suddenly close. You face your own mortality.
But Miriam was more than a sister to Moses. She was the one, while still a six-year-old child, to follow the course of the wicker basket holding her baby brother as it drifted down the Nile. She had the courage and ingenuity to approach Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest that she employ a Hebrew nurse for the child, thus ensuring that Moses would grow up knowing his family, his people and his identity.
Small wonder that the Sages said that Miriam persuaded her father Amram, the gadol hador (leading scholar of his generation), to annul his decree that Hebrew husbands should divorce their wives and have no more children since there was a fifty percent chance that any child born would be killed. “Your decree,” said Miriam, “is worse than Pharaoh’s. He only decreed against the males, yours applies to females also. He intends to rob children of life in this world; you would deny them even life in the World to Come” (Midrash Lekach Tov to Exodus 2:1). Amram admitted her superior logic. Husbands and wives were reunited. Yocheved became pregnant and Moses was born. Note simply that this midrash, told by the Sages, unambiguously implies that a six-year-old girl had more faith and wisdom than the leading rabbi of the generation!
Moses surely knew what he owed his elder sister. She had accompanied him throughout his mission. She led the women in song at the Red Sea. The one episode that seems to cast her in a negative light – when she “spoke against Moses because of his Cushite wife,” for which she was punished with leprosy – was interpreted more positively by the Sages. They said she was critical of Moses for breaking off marital relations with his wife Zipporah. He had done so because he needed to be in a state of readiness for Divine communication at any time. Miriam felt Zipporah’s plight and sense of abandonment. Besides which, she and Aaron had also received Divine communication but they had not been commanded to be celibate. She may have been wrong, suggested the Sages, but not maliciously so. She spoke not out of jealousy of her brother but out of sympathy for her sister-in-law.
When contemplating the Negev, one must set aside any preconcieved notion of what a desert is. In Eretz Yisrael there are no rolling yellow sand dunes in softly rising and falling landscapes as unbroken as the sea. Far from being a simple expanse of sand, the Negev is marked by a mélange of cliffs, crags, boulders and dry river vadies. Where the Judean Desert ends, the Negev begins, an impressive region of low sandstone hills, rocky peaks (for example the high plateau area of Ramat HaNegev- The Negev Heights – stands between 370 meters and 520 meters), and plains rutted with narrow canyons. The Negev Desert is mesmerizing, beautiful and rich in geological history.
The Negev is mentioned a number of times in Parshas Lech Lecha showing us how Avraham Avinu paced the land, making it the property of Am Yisroel forever.
The essence of Avraham was chesed; a need to give permeated his whole being. After the cities of the Plain were overturned, the wayfarers who visited his home in Chevron were few and far between. Since business was slow for hachnassas orchim, he moved to a spot along a trade route in the Negev. The places he chose to live were dry – physically and spiritually. People living there were hesitant to do good deeds or to help others. (Literally, the word “Negev” means dry). He deliberately chose such a place because he wanted to teach the inhabitants to be charitable, and he saw there was a lot of potential in that area.
Negbah is also used for the direction “south.” Avraham Avinu moved south because he was worried that the embarrassing episode of Lot and his two daughters would reflect badly upon himself. Lot was the spitting image of Avraham, and he feared that people might mistake him for his nephew Lot.
When Moshe sent the spies to tour the land, he told them to head from the Negev towards Chevron (Bamidbar 13:17). He intended for them to see the worst part of the land first so they would be able to appreciate the greatness of what they were being given. Yehoshua conquered the whole of the Negev (Yehoshua 11:16). The northern Negev belongs to Yehuda and the south to Shimon. Dovid HaMelech firmly established Israelite rule over the desert. His son Shlomo subsequently built a string of fortresses along its roads.
The rise of the Nabateans began around the fourth century B.C.E. The Negev became the heart of the Nabatean Empire and Spice Route.
After the Roman takeover, Nabatean control gradually weakened. Fewer camel caravans passed through the area and other roads supplanted the Spice Route.
Unlike most areas in the country, the Romans neglected the Negev not doing much to develop it. During the Byzantine Era, Christians began to build churches and study centers in the area. Agricultural-based cities were established and the population grew. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century settlement of the Negev came to an end. As the new rulers had little interest in the area, the residents were expelled.
For centuries after, only Bedouins lived in the Negev. An Arabic history of tribes around Beersheba, published in 1934, records 23 different tribal groups. In 1918 the English mandate period began and the region enjoyed rapid growth and was called “Beersheba sub-district.” The British built a number of highways; firstly from Beersheba to Um Rash-Rash (Eilat), then from Beersheba to the large Machtesh and also the “Petroleum Road” that goes from Yerucham to Avdat and to Machtesh Ramon.
The British White Paper of 1939 and the 1940 Land Transfer Regulations placed a number of restrictions on Jewish settlement and land purchase in Palestine. The Negev was one of the areas where both were forbidden. With the onset of World War II, the Yishuv looked to expand its areas of settlement in order to house Jewish refugees from Europe. Land was purchased in the Negev by the JNF, though Arabs agents to circumvent the British ban. Three lookouts, Revivim, Gvulot and Beit Eshel were settled in 1943. These later served as a springboard for further Jewish population of the Negev.
In the land of Midyan there lived a pagan priest, Yisro, who was greatly respected by his people. He worshiped idols of stone and wood and so did his countrymen.
But Yisro was not a fool. Indeed he was a clever and analytical thinker, and he soon came to the conclusion that his worship of these idols was futile and foolish. They were not really gods, he saw, and so he called his people together and said:
“My people, I have a very important message to tell you, and I would like you to listen very carefully. I have grown old and I can no longer worship and lead you in the worship of all these gods.
“I call upon you, therefore, to please choose some other man to be your priest. Choose a younger and stronger man, and allow me to retire in my remaining years.”
But the people understood Yisro’s real reason for wishing to step down as their priest, and they grew angry.
“Cursed be the man who befriends Yisro and who helps him do his work and who shepherds his flocks!”
Thus was Yisro ostracized, and his life became difficult. However, since he had seven daughters, he called then in and said:
“Since we have no one who is willing to help us any longer, you must become shepherds and take care of our flocks.”
But the people of Midyan would not even allow this, and they made it a point to drive away the daughters of Yisro when they appeared at the well to take water for their flocks.
It was at just such a moment that Moshe, the son of Amram, who had been raised in Pharoh’s palace, suddenly appeared on the scene. He saw the shepherds chasing away the young girls, and he felt sorry for them. He came forward and drove away the bullies, thus allowing the girls to draw water for their flocks.
And the Almighty looked down and saw what Moshe had done.
“Because Moshe did such a thing,” He said, “and because he had pity on strange girls, he shall now be called the servant of the Lord, and the people of the world shall know that My servants are good to all and that their mercies are on all the creatures of the Lord.”
And the daughters of Yisro rushed home to their father and excitedly told him about the incident.
“Father,” they exclaimed, “an Egyptian saved us from the shepherds who tried to drive us away from the well.”
Moshe stood outside the home and heard the words of the daughters of Yisro. He did not, however, come forward to correct their mistake.
Because of this, the Almighty said: “Because Moshe did not object to being called an Egyptian, because he did not call out and say that he was a Hebrew, therefore will he not be privileged to enter the Land of the Hebrews, and his bones will not be buried there.”
Thrown Into Prison
When Yisro heard his daughters’ words, he asked them:
“If this man did such a good thing for you, why did you not invite him in to eat? Go, get him.”
And so Moshe was brought into the house of Yisro, and they spoke.
“I am a Hebrew and I come from Egypt,” said Moshe, who then told Yisro all that had befallen him.
Yisro listened carefully to all that Moshe told him and thought to himself:
“Can this be? Can a man who has comfort and wealth give it all up for principle and ideals? I cannot believe such a thing. Surely, there was some evil action that he did. I will have him thrown into prison until the Egyptians send for him.”
And so, Moshe was seized and thrown into a deep and dark pit. There he remained for years and would have surely died of hunger if not for Tzipporah, the daughter of Yisro, who would come secretly every day and feed him. Yisro knew nothing of this, and put Moshe out of his mind.
One day Tzipporah approached Yisro. “Father,” she said, “Ten years ago, you placed the man Moshe in the pit. You ordered all to refrain from feeding or giving him drink. Why do you not send one of the servants now to see if he still lives?”
Yisro looked at his daughter in astonishment and said:
“You speak foolishly, daughter, How is it possible for a man who had not eaten for 10 years to live?”
His daughter persisted, however, and Yisro went to the pit where he had placed Moshe. Looking down into the dark hole, he was astonished to see Moshe, standing and praying to G-d for deliverance. He was dirty and haggard, but he was alive.
“It is a miracle!” cried Yisro. “He is still alive after all these years without food and water.”