Monday, January 8, 2007

Sun, Sweat, Salt, Shabbat - Masada and The Dead Sea, Friday December 22

I'm alive. The gas leak in our tent was contained, fixed, and it didn't happen again, and the men and women of double one are all alive and awake at 4:30am. Ready to race the sun to the top of Masada.

It's our first real hike of the week, and it comes at 5am after 3 hours sleep, and it's a steady uphill trudge. And I'm loving it, because I'm finally doing one of those things I've been told "you have to do this" for the better part of a decade. Luckily, I haven't really been told why I have to do this or what it is I have to do. That I get to find out for myself.

What I find as I arrive at the top is a magnificent pre-dawn view of the Dead Sea and the surrounding mountains, the same view that the Jewish King Herod saw when he built Masada, that the Romans saw when they conquered it, that the Jewish martyrs saw before they died on it, that my friends saw when they came here for their first times.

And then the sun arrives, peeking out over the horizon beyond the Dead Sea and Jordan. All around cameras are at the ready to capture this moment. But the moment is beyond photographs, the pictures don't do it justice. Nor do words, because hundreds of thoughts run through my mind, but really it's hard to describe.

After a while, we gather together and say these words: shehechiyanu, v'kiyemanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh. - thanking God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this moment. That's at least the 2nd time we've said these words together, at least the 5th time I've said these words to myself since landing in Israel.

We tour the ancient fortress of Masada, built by King Herod during the Roman occupation and eventually seized by the Romans when they felt threatened by the Jews. It has remained remarkably in tact, a much higher testament to Israeli archaeology than our visit to Tel Maresha. We are frequently told "don't stand on that wall. It's 2,000 years old." You don't hear this kind of thing in America.

The tour is followed by the hour-long hike down the snake path to the bottom in the early morning sun. Awaiting us at the bottom is a well-placed fresh squeezed orange juice stand and a box breakfast that feels like lunch. It's barely 9am. The day has just begun as we depart Masada.

Amazingly, it does get hot in the desert, and I have shorts on at Ein Gedi. Here, we take a short hike to a beautiful little waterfall to sit and relax and take in the beauty of the desert oasis. Some even go for a swim and a dunk in the waterfall, others stay on dry land. I went for the middle ground, walking around in the shallow cold water that feels good in the now blazing morning sun. This is the prelude to the much larger body of water at our next destination.

By the time we arrive at the Dead Sea, it's no longer so hot in the desert, and the sun is obscured by patchy cloudcover. But that won't stop us from invading the changing rooms and hitting the beach for a dip in the famed Yam Hamelach - the salty sea.

Two things I learned about the Dead Sea that I never knew. For one thing, it's beautiful. The word "Dead" refers to the salt content and the fact that it can't support any animal or plant life, but it has nothing to do with the sea's appearance - which is a diverse mix of deep, rich blues surrounded by mountains. And the other thing I learned is that in December, the water is pretty cold.

Very cold, actually, and no, you don't get used to it the longer you stay in. Still, we stuck it out, because we were there. I wasn't about to pass up a chance to float in the Dead Sea just because might catch hypothermia. The water may have been cold, but the floating is so cool! You literally can't go under the water, and you wouldn't want to, because (as one of us found out) you pretty much can't open your eyes for 5 minutes after you do. It's also hard to stand up once you're on your back, because you just end up floating on your stomach.

Once I was satisfied that I had explored all of the floating possibilities, I exited the sea and rinsed off the salt that was starting to settle into some as yet unknown cuts I apparently had on parts of my legs. The rinse was inadequate at best, but there was little time and I was hungry for yet another felafel lunch.

And in no time, it was back on the bus to race the falling sun to Kibbutz Mashabe Sade, where Shabbat candles and a much-needed shower were waiting.

The timing of this day and its orientation to Shabbat created an unmatched spiritual experience. A week of staying up late and waking up early, with the earliest wake up the most recent. A week of bus rides, tours, speakers, discussions, museums, shopping, circle games and more, and a day of hiking and swimming from sun-up to sun-down all leading to Shabbat, the day of rest and reflection. But before Shabbat, a shower, to wash off what feels like (and probably is) a week's worth of dirt, sand, camel hair, more sand, sweat, and Dead Sea salt.

I was clean, I was awake (no small miracle having been up for 14 hours already), and I was about to spend Shabbat on a Kibbutz in the Negev Desert in Israel. And I thought to myself shehechiyanu, v'kiyemanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

David!!! The Dead Sea experience sounds AMAZING. I was enthused at my rather anti-climatic dip in the I can't even imagine...That's so cool.