Beit Shemesh tour 88 248.
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
With the lush farmland of the Shfela shimmering in the distance, some 20 people stood on a hill near Beit Shemesh last Monday morning, peering off towards the point where the lowland hills taper off into the country's coastal plain.
"You can really see where these two entities meet," tour guide Einat Natan told the group as she pointed out into the valley. "From the mountains of Yehuda, out towards the Phillistine border, the topography changes dramatically."
The audience listened attentively, but instead of glancing at maps while their guide explained the historical context of the surrounding terrain, they thumbed the worn pages of their Bibles - the Hebrew Tanach - reading applicable passages that spoke of a "City of the Sun" and its surroundings - the biblical Beit Shemesh.
After four days of plumbing the depths of the world's oldest book as part of the Herzog College of Har Etzion's annual Tanach conference, the tour group - one of nine which set out to different destinations across the country on Monday morning - left the classroom for the countryside, bringing their studies to life, and viewing the Bible with their own the eyes, in the various places it was written.
Natan's group, comprising a mix of ages from various walks of life, covered the ancient borders of Yehuda, and what was once an international highway that connected Egypt to Mesopotamia.
That highway - part of which is now Highway 38 - was always ruled by the superpower of the time. When the Kingdom of Judah was powerful, they controlled it for a brief period, but by and large, it was controlled by Egypt or one of the Mesopotamian nations.
Nonetheless, this particular tour showed participants how the geography of Israel's lowlands and high hills were shaped because of this highway, and how it all played out into Jewish history.
"I believe that geography shapes history," said Natan, who has been a biblical tour guide for 20 years, and has led the Herzog College Tanach tours for the last nine. "And because the land is ours, and the Tanach is ours, these tours always blend into something quite interesting. People come away from them with a deeper grasp on the texts."
That deeper grasp is precisely what Herzog College has in mind. The status of the Tanach as a subject to be studied, has ebbed and flowed over the course of the generations, and has rarely served as a central focus of Jewish learning.
Concerns raised by the Enlightenment movement, which appropriated the Tanach for its own uses, promoted the stance that cracking open the Tanach to learn anything other than the weekly Torah portion was not something to be done in "the Torah world."
While this attitude did not significantly change with the establishment of yeshivas in Israel, Herzog College has been trying to shift the learning focus back to the Tanach, and beginning in 1992, their annual Tanach conference is an outgrowth of this effort.
From the dozens of participants - all teachers - who came 17 years ago, the number of participants at this year's event reached 4,000 people from around the globe.
"This is about a book that has been around for 4,000 years and we continue to analyze and find new insights," said Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, who teaches at the Har Etzion Yeshiva and gave lectures during the conference. "It's a book that needs to be studied, not read."