Galilee Diary: Return to the city of the dead
A man is nothing but a small plot of land,
A man is nothing but the image of the landscape of his birthplace,
Only what his ear recorded when it was still fresh,
Only what his eye took in before it had seen too much,
Whatever was encountered on the dew-covered path
By the child who tripped over every bump and clod of earth…
-Shaul Tschernichovsky (early 20th century)
In the second century, under Roman rule, Rabbi Judah Hanasi was acknowledged as a unique combination of religious and political leadership. A great scholar, he was also on close terms with the government, and was granted the village of Bet She’arim in the Jezreel Valley, and its surrounding lands, as a personal estate. When he died, he was buried in a cave just outside the village. Since the status of the Jews in Jerusalem was problematic at this time, his grave rapidly became the center of a thriving burial industry: Jews from all over the country and all around the eastern Mediterranean, who couldn’t be buried in Jerusalem, willed that their bodies be interred near Rabbi Judah’s grave, so they’d have a ringside seat for the resurrection when it came. The ridges around the little village of Bet She’arim became riddled with burial chambers large and small; this necropolis (city of the dead) did a thriving business until the next political upheaval in 350.
Excavations in the 30s and again in the 50s yielded rich finds of artwork and many inscriptions. Today, Bet She’arim National Park is quiet, green, beautiful, and full of interesting things to see, especially in the several caves that are open to the public. Recently, looking for a not-too-strenuous family outing one Friday morning, we decided on Bet She’arim. Though I have studied the site and its literature, participated in professionally guided tours, and led dozens of tours there myself, we decided to take up the suggestion of the cashier at the entrance, and take advantage of the free hourly tours. We were received at the meeting place by David, who, it turned out, is a retired civil engineer who lives in nearby Tivon; the park has a program of training locals to serve as volunteer guides. We had no idea of what we were in for: David’s knowledge was encyclopedic, his binder of texts and art reproductions priceless, and his enthusiasm infectious. He clearly loves the site, and has spent ten years digging – not in the soil, but in libraries and websites, discovering connections and references. His happiness – and modesty – in sharing it all without flooding us out or turning us off were remarkable, even inspiring.
Since we first came on aliyah over 20 years ago, and I began to work in educational tourism, I have been fascinated by the connection between people and land, between landscape and identity. What causes some of us to connect so viscerally to particular places? What does it mean to “love” a place? How much of that feeling is based on childhood memories, or on what we’ve been taught, or on some kind of animal instinct? How much control do we have over such feelings? Why do they drive some people to war, and some to peace? Is it OK to have such feelings, or are they a part of a destructive romantic connection to land that ends up with “blood and soil” – or, rather, a lot of blood on the soil? And on the other hand, are those with no such feelings somehow alienated and rootless, less fully human?
Such heavy thoughts were out of place that day at Bet She’arim, where our guide’s love of this city of the dead was overflowing with life.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah