Op-Ed: The Ten Wonders of the Land of Israel
Iran. Egypt. Syria. Obama. The anti-Israel media. The government of Israel that is too right for the left and too left for the right.
Scroll down the list of op-eds on IsraelNationalNews.com or any other Israel-focused news site, and you'll see all the current threats to the Jewish nation. I used to read them all. And I would get so down in the dumps, asking myself, "What's going to be? How can we overcome this one?"
In that light, and given that the summer is over and the period of Teshuva is upon us, I thought it would be a nice idea to start writing about optimistic topics, and leave the negative stuff aside.
So here's the first piece: The Wonders of The Land of Israel
We've now been living in Israel for close to eight years, and have been able to see some of the remarkable sites this unique country has to offer. And while there are many incredible things to see, I feel compelled to offer this list of the countries top 10 wonders, based on my own criteria:
Degree to which is it connected to Jewish history
Degree to which it takes one's breath away, simply from its grandeur
Degree of spiritual component
Degree to which it causes one to say, "What a gift from G-d."
Here they are – in no particular order, with complete explanations following each. I encourage all to visit as many of these places as possible, as the composite experience will help all of us appreciate what G-d has given the Jewish people as a gift.
Gamla – This fortress-city in the Golan Heights is as incredible for its location as it is for its historical significance. Flavius Josephus – yes, the one who wrote about Jewish history – before he turned himself over to the Romans, held Gamla as somewhat of a Jewish stronghold during the period of the Great Revolt at the end of the Second Temple period. It is a city built on the side of a mountain, and it almost defies physics that a city could be where it is.
To add to Gamla's wonder is the amazing bird-watching in the area as well, due to the cliffs alongside Gamla being home to Israel's largest vulture population. From the edge of the trail, one can look across at the cliffs on the opposite side of Gamla and watch the vultures flying in and out of the cliff-side caves.
And almost as an afterthought, the site offers a beautiful view of the Kinneret as well.
Har Hermon – We all know about it, and I even wrote about it once, because I was so impacted by its beauty. But nothing compares to the fact that G-d thought enough of his chosen people that he even gave us a snowy ski resort-ready mountain just three hours from the center of the country.
What is remarkable is how few people have actually been there. Ask around. You'll find that everyone wants to go, but they just don't. Well, go. Not only is it a surreal experience to throw a snowball and go down a hill on a sled in Israel, but there is something special about seeing IDF soldiers dressed completely in white (the Alpinists, as they are called.)
I believe all Olim owe it to our children to go to the Hermon once a year, just to enable them to experience snow on an annual basis.
Herodion – We now know that this man-made mountain is the site where the "great" Herod (or Hordus) is buried. He and his megalomania are responsible for several items on this list. In addition to being one of Herod's palaces, Herodion also served as an important fortress for the Jewish participants in the Bar Kochba rebellion that almost ended the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel.
It's located only about 10 minutes from Jerusalem in Gush Etzion, and the relatively short hike to the top is rewarded by a fascinating, well-preserved archeological site.
The Jordan Valley Road – Not a site you'd expect to see on this list, because it's not a site at all. But then you think about being able to see the Dead Sea, wondering where exactly on the other side Moshe is buried. And then you pass Yericho, which Joshua and the Jewish people conquered with HaShem's help. And then a half hour later, you see the place where the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisrael after wandering in the Desert for 40 years. Then you just look around you and see the hills on both sides of you, thinking about how much of Jewish history took place there.
And it's beautiful, as well. Just a word of warning: it's quite possible that you will end up stuck behind a slow-moving truck. If so, just take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery – and the history – around you.
Shilo – You want to experience Jewish history in such an overt way that it will literally take your breath away? Head into the Shomron and visit Shilo, the site where the center of Jewish religious observance was for 369 years. For the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), all 12 tribes would head to Shilo, where the mishkan stood and sacrifices took place.
What's particularly cool about it is that you can go now and stand right where the Holy of Holies stood so many years ago. You can stand on the spot where Hanna prayed for a child, ultimately resulting in the birth of Shmuel the prophet. You can still see thousands of shards of pottery on the hills surrounding the plateau where the mishkan stood. These shards are left by the Jewish people of that time who smashed their utensils after eating the korban Pesach. And you can think about the scene when after being informed that the holy Ark had been captured by the Philistines, Eli the Kohen fell backward and died.
It all took place there, at Shilo, where we can go today.
The Temple Mount – I have been there three times, and I can't wait to go back, provided my mindset is in the right place. In fact, I have not been there in two years because I don't feel I am at an elevated enough level to do so. But make no mistake about it – You can go if you want to go. There are just certain precautions you must take first, which are beyond the scope of this article.
But if you want to experience something truly spiritual – if you want to go to the spiritual center of the universe – you have a chance to do so, albeit not in the way we hope to someday, once the Temple is rebuilt.
See where the Temple will once again stand someday. Think about the incredible things that took place there in the past. Understand the role we can all play in a positive future for the Jewish people …
… and be inspired.
Caesarea - “If you hear that Caesarea and Jerusalem are both in ruins or that both are flourishing peacefully, do not believe it. Believe only a report that Caesarea is in ruins and Jerusalem is flourishing or that Jerusalem is in ruins and Caesarea is flourishing” – Talmud, Tractate Megilla 6a. I can't explain it, since Jerusalem seems to be thriving and Caesarea is absolutely stunning. But I think the idea is that if Caesarea is thriving, then Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt, in terms of the Bet HaMikdash. But I digress.
On the one hand, Caesarea boasts some of Herod's most amazing handiwork (or better put, the handiwork of the tens of thousands of people who worked for him). On the other, there is nothing less "Israeli" than playing a round of golf, which one can also do in Caesarea. But then again, Caesarea was very un-Jewish back in the times of the second Temple, so it makes sense that it would host un-Jewish things today as well. At the same time, lots of Jews play golf.
Anyway, you get the point. Go to Caesarea and see the ancient and modern wonders of Israel. It's truly amazing.
Hevron – I love going to Hevron, not only because it is an opportunity for us Jews to demonstrate our sovereignty over the Land, but also because it is so important for us to always demonstrate to our forefathers that we appreciate all they did for us. If someone believes it's important to visit the grave of a family member, how much more so do we need to visit Hevron on a regular basis to reconnect to Avraham & Sara, Yitzchak & Rivka, and Yaakov & Leah?
The other great thing about visiting Hevron – and the Me'arat HaMachpela – is that we were unable to go there for so many years, and we need to demonstrate to G-d as well, that we in modern times appreciate this gift he has given us. Just think about the fact that Jews were not able to enter the Herod-built structure above the Me'ara until 1967. And now, all it takes is a bus-ride. Or, if you are more adventurous, a car-ride.
Metzada – I've never understood why everyone calls it "Masada," given that it is very clearly written with a "tz" in Hebrew. I mean, if we used the same logic for other words, we'd all be eating massa on Pesach and praying for a return to Sion.
Anyway, similar in many ways to both Gamla in the Galil (due to the similar story) and Herodion in Gush Etzion (due to the similarity of the structure), Metzada is not only incredible for its archeology and its story, but also for the fun and exhausting hike up its winding "snake-path" steps from below. You can also get there by cable-car, but it's a great feeling to get to the top by foot, and the site itself is so intricate and well-preserved. Also, the ramp made by the Romans is astounding and, frankly, unsettling when one closes his eyes to think about the dramatic capture of Metzada by the Romans.
Do yourself a favor and bring a copy of Josephus' "The Jewish War" with you. Then, when you are at the top, read his account to those who are with you. It brings the whole thing to life.
Chizkiyahu's Tunnel – When King Chizkiyahu became concerned that the Assyrians would lay siege to the city of Jerusalem, he put in place a strategy to have a tunnel run from Jerusalem down through the City of David to the Gihon Spring. That would enable the people to have water even if Jerusalem was under siege. The book of Kings describes the whole thing, and you and I can now walk through this tunnel.
The kids will love it, especially when they have to wade through water! The parents will be amazed about being able to touch such a major part of Jewish history. It's both fun and fascinating.
So there you have it. A list of 10 gifts from G-d. Ten amazing experiences in our little Land of Israel. Go to each of them. Feel inspired. Feel uplifted.
We are taught by our Sages that we should serve G-d in a state of happiness. Sometimes the day-to-day can get us down, but if we just look around at this gift of Eretz Yisrael, it's enough to put a smile on anyone's face.