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September 18, 2014 | 23rd Elul 5774

Desert winter

Galilee Diary #215
January 9, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice
And shall blossom like a crocus;
It shall blossom abundantly, it shall exult and shout.

-Isaiah 35:1-2

Our youngest son, still exploiting, like many of his peers, his post-army moratorium on making a long term commitment to study, career, etc., has been working with several friends on a work gang, harvesting olives in the Negev. It is hard physical labor, dusty and hot (or cold), mostly done these days by Thai laborers, but he and his friends have no complaints. Last week the five sets of parents organized a “parents’ weekend” to visit the boys and have a family outing in the desert. It brought back memories of our first desert experience, in the early 1970s, when we spent a year in Beersheba. We traveled the length and breadth of the Negev then, by car and on foot (including Sinai), and developed a real love for the desert. We had a wonderful year, and yet we were not tempted to settle there. The desert seems to me a place to experience, a place from which, periodically, to draw inspiration – but not a place to live. And so, we treasure opportunities to spend time there.

There is something elemental, basic, unmediated, and authentic about the desert. What you see is what you get. Everything is extreme – the heat, the cold, the dryness, the rain, the blue of the sky, the multitude of the stars, the endless silence – and the howling of the wind. There are no soft edges – everything is knife sharp. At noon the glare makes you lose perspective, and the vista looks flat and without depth, harsh and forbidding; but in early morning or as the sun is setting, the angle of the light creates a graceful play of shadows along the ridges, and every rock and hillock becomes richly three-dimensional, somehow gentle and pleasing to the eye. The sparse signs of human interference (most of them failures, left to rust or dry up or wash away) seem trivial in the face of the vastness of the empty space – about which there is something overwhelming - but also invigorating. You are in the world the way God made it – or maybe before God made it.

The “bed and breakfast” at which we stayed was actually a scattering of canvas tepees (really! I don’t quite understand the Israeli fascination with Native American culture; we drove through dense habitations of real Bedouin tents around Beersheba on our way to our “Indian” village; and then opened the weekend newspaper to a cover story about the popularity of shamanism in Israel!), barely furnished, far from the communal toilets on a moonless, below-freezing night.

The next morning, we set off on a leisurely all day hike along Boker Valley (we were not far from Sde Boker, Ben Gurion’s kibbutz). We walked for a couple of miles up a winding, gently sloping valley between layered rocky walls, the flat bottom averaging probably 50-100 yards wide. What was amazing was that the entire valley had been terraced with rows of rectangular stone blocks, so that it was a long flight of broad steps, each about two feet high. The gradual slope lent itself to this technique, and even though the terraces have been abandoned for centuries, they remain mostly intact, and succeed in breaking the flow of runoff after the winter storms, and capturing moisture, so that each terrace is a meadow of grass and wild flowers for a month or two each winter. Look down and you are surrounded by green; look to the side – and all is barren rock in shades of beige. One of our party pointed out how vulnerable the ancient inhabitants of this valley must have been: a little too much rain and any crops would be swept away; a little too little – and the seedlings would wither (if they had germinated at all).

Ben Gurion thought we could conquer the Negev, remake it into our own image. I’m not sure that vision still holds; I’m not sure I would want it to.

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