Masada is not what it used to be. The desert fortress on the Dead Sea brought to grandeur by King Herod in the first century b.c.e. has seen better days. Not so long ago, it was a symbol of Israeli character. The Jewish zealots in the second century c.e. who committed mass suicide here rather than be defeated by the Romans were seen as a model of determination to be free.
Nowadays, Israelis are not so sure that this is the model they want their children to admire. In an Israel after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, this society is less willing to venerate zealots than it used to be.
Israel used to hold induction ceremonies for its most elite military units on top of Masada. No more. Those units now have their ceremonies at the Western Wall, a symbol of a holy place that was lost with mourning, not a suicide pact.
And that, really, is a better reflection of Judaism's attitude toward life and death. When the Temple in Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans in 69 c.e., Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of the doomed city to negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian for the survival of the rabbinic academy at Yavna. Rabbi Yochanan recognized that the survival of Torah and the saving of many lives outweighed the loss of even the Temple and acceptance of Roman rule.
That perspective has reasserted itself in a more mature state of Israel. Masada still has power as a symbol for Israelis and the line of tourists waiting for the cable cars to ride up to the top still is long. However, the symbol is tempered by an awareness that ours is a tradition of life, not death, and that we have more to live for than we have to die for.
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, FL.
Originally posted at Reb Jeff
Photo by user Gugganij on Wikimedia Commons