Freedom was even more in the air than usual this Pesach in Israel. A burst of new life could be seen on the streets as the happy populace emerged from a yearlong winter of corona, during which they were confined indoors with social contact severely restricted.
During Chol HaMoed, hundreds of thousands of Israelis flocked in a non-ending parade to the Old City and the Kotel, with record numbers ascending the Temple Mount. Hundreds of thousands visited national parks and forests, while others flocked to the beaches in Eilat, the Dead Sea, the Kinneret, and the Mediterranean Sea.
On our family outing, we decided to visit “Jewish Jericho” to see the ancient ruins and the pioneering Jewish settlement in the area. Among the sites are Tel Yericho, where “the walls came tumbling down.” The remnants of a stone building with stairs is said to be the house of Rahav who sheltered the two spies sent by Yehoshua to reconnoiter the city.
Not far away is Gilgal, the first Jewish encampment after crossing the Jordan River, the place where the Children of Israel were circumcised after they entered the Land, and the site where King Shaul was later anointed. In the distance, you can see Mount Nebo, where Moshe Rabbeinu gazed upon the Holy Land before he was buried. Also in the area are the remains of the winter palaces of the Hasmonean kings.
The HaKol HaYehudi website, which promoted Chol HaMoed tours to historic but often neglected Plains of Jericho, reported that 10,000 people visited the area during Pesach.
The 28th of Nisan marks the anniversary of the conquest of Jericho by Yehoshua Ben Nun and the children of Israel upon their entry to the Holy Land. This Friday, to commemorate the conquest, which occurred on Shabbat, a group of shofar blowers will sound their horns while standing on the bridge that extends over the excavation of the ancient city.
Rabbi Avraham Blass, who heads the Institute for the Jerusalem Talmud and who taught in a small yeshiva in the area after Jericho was handed over to the Arabs, told The Jewish Press:
“The Biblical conquest of Jericho on Shabbat illustrates the great importance of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish life…. The Yerushalmi states that a war must be started three days before Shabbat, but clarifies [that it is only speaking of] a war not obligated by the Torah (milchemet reshut). When an obligatory war (milchemet mitzvah) is concerned – such as the war to conquer Eretz Yisrael – it is allowed to begin the battle even on Shabbat, as was the case in Jericho.”
Erna Covos is responsible for the development of what she calls “Jewish Jericho.” I was hoping to meet her during our visit, but she was guiding a tour group, so I spoke with her on the phone later in the evening after the crowds had dispersed and the quiet of the Jordan Valley returned to the small Jewish community – Beit Hogla, in the plains of Jericho – where Erna established a farm, cultivating and expanding it for 15 years before other pioneering families joined her.
“Our beginnings here involved many difficulties,” she said. “That was to be expected, as our Sages taught that three things are acquired through suffering: the Torah, the World to Come, and Eretz Yisrael. After the Oslo Agreement, we had to fight the authorities to be here. First, 20 years ago, we established a yeshiva under the leadership of HaRav Yitzchak Ginsburgh with a contingent of his students who had learned with him at the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in Shechem.
“Rabbi Yose Pele came with students from Yitzhar every day…. Later, Rabbi Avraham Blass and other rabbis would come each week to give shiurim. In those days, with the backing of some Knesset members, I received temporary permission to live in [an] army warehouse base….
“Afterwards, I moved to the IDF camp at Nevo and started a farm nearby with the help of volunteers without any governmental assistance – not even from Moetzet Megilot, the regional council which had jurisdiction in the area.
“Unfortunately, even today they are not willing to recognize our settlement or take away our garbage. Moetzet Binyamin provides the service for us out of goodwill, even though we are not a part of their authority. We have managed to survive here due to Divine Providence alone.
“Fifteen years passed before families came to live here. In the last five years…22 families have made Beit Hogla their home, and another 17 families, bezrat Hashem, are on their way.
“Our organic farm grows dates, figs, olives, pomegranates, papaya, and other fruits, even though the salty and sandy soil is difficult to cultivate. We produce olive oil and boast a holistic medical clinic. We built a visitor’s center to promote educational school outings and tourism to the area, which is rich in historic and religious significance.
“Here is where our national roots in Eretz Yisrael were planted. We want everyone to come and make a personal connection to the place, and to its past and its future. If we don’t strengthen our presence here and expand, the Arabs surely will.”