The first major battle of the Great Revolt against Rome took place a few minutes from Shorashim, at Yodfat. After a 47 day siege, the Romans overwhelmed the little fortress. According to Josephus account, a group of leaders hid in a cistern during the final moments, and agreed on a suicide pact. Their general, Josephus himself, argued against their plan:
Now, he is equally a coward who will not die when he is obliged to die, and he who will die when he is not obliged so to do. What are we afraid of, when we will not go up to the Romans? Is it death? If so, what are we afraid of, when we but suspect our enemies will inflict it on us, shall we inflict it on ourselves for certain? But it may be said, we will become slaves. And are we, then, in a clear state of liberty at present? It may also be said, that it is a manly act for one to kill himself. No, certainly, but a most unmanly one; as I should esteem that pilot to be an arrant coward who, out of fear of a storm, should sink his ship of his own accord.
-Josephus, Wars of the Jews III 8
They rejected his arguments, and killed one another; he managed to survive, surrendered, and went on to write the only history of this event as well as of the rest of the war, including the fall of Masada six years later, where another mass suicide was recorded.
The image of Masada has been an important element of Israeli culture over the years, and in recent days it has come to the fore again, as extreme leaders of the opposition to withdrawal from Gaza have been issuing statements like: the only way I will leave Gaza is in a coffin For some Jews, the disengagement has taken on mythic terms, as though to acquiesce in it would represent an unthinkable, immoral act, a violation of basic principles. As we showed our disdain for our opponents ideology, and our absolute commitment to our own course of action, at Masada, so now, we are told, life itself is less important than our commitment to settling and holding the land, even the land of Gaza.
The historian Shaye J.D. Cohen has found over a dozen similar accounts of mass suicides of embattled non-Jewish groups during the Roman period, adding strength to the doubts that some have expressed over the years regarding the reliability of Josephus description; perhaps he was merely incorporating into his story a popular motif to which his readers could relate.
Masada is the most visited of all the Israeli national parks, with a monumental visitors center and expensive sound-and-light show. For me this fascination with the Masada myth strikes a dissonant note; I had thought that the point of Zionism was the revitalization of the Jewish people, the return to history, to national cultural creativity based on a return to the roots of our collective memory. How exactly does the glorification of mass suicide contribute to this national agenda? Maybe we are still somehow struggling against the stereotype of Jews as weak, pale, cowardly, unable to stand up for their honor, unable to die with dignity. We have to prove to the world and to ourselves that we have principles, for which we are willing to die if necessary.
The problem is - as Josephus, much as he was reviled for his betrayal of his comrades at Yodfat, wisely pointed out - what if dying is not necessary? What about compromising in order to survive and fight another day? What about the dignity of life as a higher value than a heroic death?
The verse in Leviticus (18:5) reads: You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live and the Talmud (Yoma 85b) adds: man shall live and not die!
Masada is indeed a fascinating archaeological excavation. Nice place to visit. But please, not a pilgrimage site! If we indeed want to live here, we need to live by different myths.