History at Our Feet: Birthright and Burial Caves

Written by: Aaron Fox

Have you ever taken the time to really think about where you are sitting? For me, this had been a challenge throughout the week, with the overwhelming number of new friends, teachers, classes, and experiences. As I recognized this, I tried more and more to use the time I had to reflect and really think about where I was. The amount of history in walking distance from me, that I could walk less than a half a mile to touch with my hands, that I could visit, and re-visit within a matter of minutes. It felt crazy!

The view from the hill, as we hiked to the burial caves.

On Tuesday the Halel bus ventured down the hill on which Kibbutz Tzuba, our home while on Heller High, lies and so that we could explore the ancient burial caves that were located there. It was there that we opened our Tanachim (Hebrew bibles) and read about Israel, formerly known in the book as Jacob, and the issue of giving up his birthright. Israel had 12 sons (the 12 tribes of Israel) and each was arguably deserving of the birthright. Two of Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi, were both passionate about family and deeply cared for their sister, Dinah (Jacob’s only daughter). However, both brothers were hot headed and often lost their tempers. Reuben, Jacob’s oldest, was “unstable as water” and “brought disgrace” (Genesis; 49.4) and was thereby, unworthy of the birthright. However, the next brother, Judah, was compared to a lion in the chapter. He was bold, brave, fierce, and loyal.

When Joseph tricked his youngest brother, Benjamin, by framing him for stealing a chalice, Judah stood up for him and attempted to take his place in prison. Judah received the blessing from his father and was told that he and his kin would be the rulers in the land of Israel. The Tanach also tells of how, before these last words were spoken, Israel (Jacob) blessed Joseph’s sons promised that they would prosper in the future. This was a big deal for the brothers, as this would decide who got the land and the wealth of their family. Joseph already had land of his own from his time serving the Pharaoh in Egypt, and therefore did not need the land of his father.

We then ventured further down the hill and explored what looked to be some holes in the wall of stone along the hillside. After crawling into one as a class, we learned that the hole was actually a burial chamber. As we all found a place to sit on the shelves that lined the walls, we were told to “not freak out” and were then informed that those shelves once held the bodies of the dead. In ancient times, they were placed on the shelves and left for a year to decompose. When there was nothing but bones left, members of the family would throw the bones into the small hole in the floor and leave the remains with that of their family members.

A few of us decided to lie down in the same places the bodies would have been sitting, centuries ago. We then left the caves and walked further down to see a small cave with what looked like different layers of rock, with water pooled at the bottom. When it rained the cave filled up even more and the people who lived here would dip into the pool, naked, and this was used as part of the purification process.

This cave filled up with water and was utilized in the purification process.

After we took our turns going into the cave, a few at a time, we made our way back up the hill. To my left I saw Tel Tzuba, to my right was the Kibbutz, and behind me were the caves. I then realized that I was quite literally surrounded by history. There is so much to appreciate in the area, and it was so incredibly amazing to learn about who was here, on that same hill, generations before I was born. I challenge you all to think about this same thing when you are somewhere of historical significance, or even just when you are in your own living room!

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