This was written by Spring 2019 participant Jacob after his powerful experience on Masada.
The ascent up Masada was not an easy one. We began our journey in darkness, but when we finally reached the end of our trek, we stepped foot atop Masada to observe the gorgeous sunrise overlooking the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.
For all those who hiked up the mountain, whether leading in the front or straggling in the back, they emitted a sigh of relief when they reached the top. Although this was just a hike and not a battle, a true essence of accomplishment filled the air atop Masada, as if we overcame an obstacle and were celebrating our victory as a collective people.
The word מצדה (Masada) comes from the Hebrew word מצודה (metzudah), which means fortress. As this story unfolds, it will become clear as to why this small civilization was considered a fortress. During his rule from 37-4 BCE, Roman King Herod built a number of palaces throughout his territory including the one at Masada. He was an extremely paranoid king, which is why Masada was a prime location to build his palace. While it did not have a water source, was not on located on a trade route, and did not have ideal conditions for agriculture, what it did provide was a defensive advantage. Masada was situated atop an isolated rock cliff, surrounded by desert. Not only did it provide the higher ground in battle, but from Masada, one could see very far into the desert, so if enemies were coming to attack, their approach could be detected many days in advance.
In 66 CE the Great Revolt broke out when the Jews revolted against the Romans who controlled Jerusalem. After a series of challenges, the Jews were defeated in battle. As this process took place, a small group of Zealots realized that the war would end poorly, so they decided to find a safe place to hide that had infrastructure and defense. They fled south and came to Masada where they killed the small team of Roman soldiers holding it down. They then brought their families over and began their attempt at establishing a new life.
Ultimately, the Romans caught up to the Zealots at Masada. When thousands of Roman soldiers besieged Masada in 73 CE, the Zealots decided that they would rather die by their own choice than through the brutality of the Romans. The men killed their families and each other to avoid committing suicide, which would have been a sin. These Jews isolated themselves, chose not to be part of society, and were ultimately defeated. The rabbis do not speak of the story of Masada in their texts because they want the Jewish people to live and thrive with different groups of people. In secluding themselves from the world, these Jews ignored Jewish Values.
Today, when people state the phrase, “Masada will not fall again,” they are affirming that the state of Israel and the Jewish people will not be defeated. Throughout our history, we have always been persecuted for our religion, and intolerance has plagued our stability as a people. The Great Revolt was a tragic period in Jewish history, but it fits in with the pattern of slaughter that the Jews have endured. After flashing back to this ancient period, we can look at the current geopolitical state of the Jewish people to understand and appreciate the progress we have made. We face the reality that there is prejudice and hate in this world, but despite the boundless adversity, Israel has maintained its land, its culture, and most importantly, its people.