My Word: Stones, scrolls and the Sabbath

Ultimately, people – including presidents – come and go. The limestone rocks at Ramat Rahel tell the story of civilizations that have risen and fallen.

November 10, 2016 20:57
Ramat Rahel

LOOKING OUT from Mitzpe Yair at the Ramat Rahel Archeological Gardens, a glorious view of Jerusalem can be seen. . (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

During a press trip to an Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory at the Israel Museum a few years ago, we were given an unusual opportunity to see a fragment of an ancient scroll. As we crowded around the parchment, one journalist excitedly recognized the text. It was part of his bar mitzva portion.

Although it had been written a couple thousand years ago, most Israeli children above the age of six would find the letters familiar.

The incident came back to me this week when I heard the Israel Radio report that the Palestinian Authority was planning to lay a claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on the grounds that they had been discovered in Qumran, an area under Israeli control that they would like to become part of a future Palestinian state.

Their battle for ownership of the scrolls would not be with Israel alone. In 2010, Jordan made a similar claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in a cave between 1947 and 1956, when the area was under British, and then Jordanian, rule.

Like the fight to rename the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria – to replace signs of the Jewish connection with an Islamic identity – so, too, with the scrolls.

No matter how hard the Palestinians, supported by Jordan, try to change the narrative, it will be impossible to change the facts: The average Jordanian or Palestinian child would not be able to read the text, let alone have happy memories of having sung it out loud surrounded by friends and family in a coming-of-age ceremony.

MY FAMILY spent last Shabbat at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel’s lovely hotel, celebrating my parents’ upcoming 60th wedding anniversary.

Among the hotel guests was a large party holding a bar mitzva and a big group that gathered with a groom ahead of his wedding.

The dining room was joyous, if noisy, and we mutually congratulated each other and offered wishes for more happy occasions.

In the afternoon, all the guests were offered a free tour of the kibbutz and on-site archeological garden.

The kibbutz, located next to Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Pictures recording the community’s tumultuous history make it clear, however, that, when it was founded in 1926, Ramat Rahel was physically remote from the then-small city.

The kibbutz story is an epic tale of twists of fate.

It was attacked by Arabs in the riots that rocked the region in 1929. During the 1948 War of Independence, it was overrun by Egyptian forces that arrived from Gaza via the Hebron Hills but, ultimately, after losing and regaining it more than once, the Jewish kibbutzniks were able to hold on, even as the nearby Etzion Bloc fell.

Its situation, however, was far from secure, surrounded as it was by Arab villages on the hostile Jordanian border. It wasn’t until after the Six Day War, when Israel gained control of the surrounding area, that the kibbutz could breathe easier.

Ramat Rahel’s name comes from being on the hill overlooking the biblical “road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem.” It is along this route, according to the Book of Genesis, that the matriarch Rachel was buried – her death still mourned on the Hebrew anniversary, which falls this week.

Next to the hotel entrance is a statue of a torch-bearing Rachel inscribed with the text from Jeremiah: “And your children shall return to their borders.”

Aided by UNESCO resolutions, Palestinians are also trying to claim sole ownership of Rachel’s Tomb, calling it the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque. It’s enough to make her turn in her grave.

The archeological site contains evidence of some 3,000 years of civilization, from the Iron Age on – walls from the First Temple period; the remains of a palace and fortress from the time of the Judean kings; parts of a Roman villa; signs of Persian and Byzantine occupation, including remnants of a church; and traces of the early Muslim period. All nestle close to where a Second Temple-period ritual bath and dovecote can be seen.

The path that winds its way through the archeological site leads to Mitzpe Yair, a beautifully designed outlook named for kibbutz member Yair Engel, a naval commando who died in a training accident in 1996.

The overlook gives visitors a wonderful view of modern and ancient Jerusalem, from Teddy Stadium to the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

The tenement bloc in which I live is obviously neither the best nor most noteworthy aspect of the view, although it was exciting for my son to spot it.

We were already well aware of how close the fighting in 1948 came to our neighborhood. We live less than a five-minute walk from the San Simon Monastery and park, where one of the most crucial battles for Jewish survival in Jerusalem took place in the War of Independence.

The battles are not remote either historically or physically, a humbling thought for November 11, Veterans Day, in the US and British Commonwealth.

THIS WEEKEND marks the third anniversary of the Shabbat Project, expected to reach more than 1,000 communities in about 90 countries around the Jewish world. The project is the brainchild of South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who notes the power of spending a spiritual Sabbath among friends, family and community members, literally switching off external distractions from mobile phones, computers and news updates. It is, perhaps, even more important following the conclusion of the hate-filled US presidential elections that have affected us all.

“Shabbat has accompanied us as a people on our journey since the dawn of our people, after our liberation from slavery in Egypt, until today, to the point where the poet Ahad Ha’am famously said, ‘More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews,’” wrote Goldstein in an op-ed a week ago.

Sabbath observers, my immediate family experiences this rejuvenation every week. Regardless of religious belief, taking a day of rest – a real day of rest – is the ultimate safe space, or safe time. It allows us to reconnect with ourselves and those close to us, sharing meals and what is now known as “quality time.” Good food, good company and time to relax. It’s a winning combination.

Last week, my family was blessed to share a Shabbat together surrounded by Jerusalem’s history, hills and olive trees – not easy to arrange when siblings are split among three continents.

This week, as we light Shabbat candles and sing the traditional songs greeting the Sabbath, we will be thinking of each other and feel connected.

Ultimately, people – including presidents – come and go. The limestone rocks at Ramat Rahel tell the story of civilizations that have risen and fallen.

No one can say for sure what the future will bring, neither the optimists nor the doomsayers, but long after today’s monuments are rocks and ruins, the famous names forgotten, Jews will still be marking the Sabbath, creating a natural balance in the rhythm of life.

Shabbat shalom.

Related Content

September 20, 2019
Grapevine: We were all migrants and/or refugees