It was three in the morning when the black van pulled up to the hotel. A tall man with crazy hair climbed out and greeted us. Half asleep, I clambered into the car, and hours later; I awoke to the sight of the desert and the driver swerving through the barren road. He pulled into a parking lot and I unsteadily got out of the car and stared at the mountain. “Come on, yalla! Let’s go!” He shoved a water bottle into my hand as we started the climb.
I knew the stories and facts about the landmark. In the final accords of the First Jewish-Roman War, a siege of Masada by the Roman army led to a mass suicide of the Jews living on the mountain. It is one of the Jewish people’s great symbols, an ironic icon of survival in the face of adversity. The guide reminded me of the story as I stepped over rocks and stumbled up the narrow stone steps.
As we dragged on, I learned more about the guide. His name was Avi Goren—a medal-winning soldier who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He drove tanks throughout the war; every tank he drove was attacked and the soldiers inside injured. In many of these instances, Avi was the only survivor of the attack. Injured, he repeatedly left the tank into open fire to retrieve bodies for proper burial. As he told the story, I could see the emotions and hardships he was carrying with him. He is the bravest man I know, for, regardless of what he went through, he continues on with courage and selflessness.
He finished his story as we reached the top of Masada and we sat down to watch the sunrise over the Israeli desert. When the sun reached the top of the sky we toured the ruins of the ancient mountaintop fortress. We moved through the beautiful architecture of the bathhouse and the aqueducts and I tried to imagine the difficult choice my ancestors had to make. As the story goes, the Romans seized the fortress and instead of allowing themselves to be captured and enslaved, the Jewish people inhabiting the fortress took their own lives as an act of defiance. They realized that to surrender their freedom would be worse than death. By keeping the Jewish flame alive, they became a symbol of triumph of the Jewish spirit.
After the tour, we started the grueling walk down the mountain. The sun was at full height, raising the temperature to 110 degrees. With my next step, my ankle rolled and I fell to the ground. I felt the prickle of tears and I nursed the searing pain in my foot as two options flashed before my eyes: turn around and take the cable car, or, continue my pilgrimage regardless of my injury. I thought of the perseverance that the people of Masada and Avi had in the face of adversity, and knew I simply had to continue. After many painful steps, I limped over to the car and replayed the last few hours in my head. Perseverance in the face of affliction: the Jewish people are always overcoming hardships, and as we move forward and celebrate the Hanukkah miracle or being saved from slavery in Egypt, we must remember the importance of maintaining the Jewish light and spirit. As I finished my climb of Masada, I started a new climb towards strength and courage as my Jewish ancestors and heroes did before me.
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