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December 21, 2014 | 29th Kislev 5775

A fault line runs through it

Galilee Diary #191
July 25, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Recently, I was standing in the living room talking to Tami, who was sitting on the couch, when suddenly she said, “There, did you feel something?” I had to admit that I didn’t know what she was talking about. Sure enough, the next day we read in the newspaper about a minor earthquake that had affected the region. This is not the first time Tami has been aware of seismic activity under our feet, while I have remained oblivious to it. The point here is not my insensitivity, but rather, the fact that we live in an earthquake zone. Sometimes I wonder what God was thinking when He chose this particular sliver of the world to promise to us. OK, so our desert may not be quite as arid and forbidding as that of our neighbors to the east and the west – but it also doesn’t lie on top of vast deposits of petroleum, like their deserts do. Nicely positioned as a bridge between Asia and Africa – and between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean - this land has always served as a crossroads for trade and cultural transmission – but also for the conquering armies of competing empires, who have been marching back and forth across our little patch of homeland since history began to be recorded. A land flowing with milk and honey – indeed, but only in a rainy year; living as we do squeezed between the Mediterranean and the desert, it rains only during half the year, and the entire cycle of natural flora and agriculture depends on how many millimeters of rain fall during the winter months. That’s why our Canaanite predecessors here prayed to Ba’al, the rain god, and we did too, when the prophets weren’t looking.

Droughts, wars, energy prices – we can deal with it. But whose idea was it to settle directly along one of the most active fault lines in the world? From Metulla in the north to Eilat in the south, the dominant feature of the landscape of Israel is the Syro-African rift valley, a massive meeting of tectonic plates that lies beneath the Jordan river, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, the Arava, and the Gulf of Aqaba. It is this fault that gives us hot springs and sulfur springs – and tar springs beneath the Dead Sea. And it is the shifting of plates in this valley that has produced a long series of earthquakes – seismologists estimate about one every 50 years. The most recent that caused property damage was in 1995 (even I felt that one). The most recent to cause deaths (about 400) was in 1927. Archaeologists find evidence of earlier quakes throughout the span of history; Bet Shean was destroyed in 746; Safed in 1759 and again in 1837.

The words of Amos, a sheep breeder from Tekoa, who prophesied concerning Israel in the reigns of Kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

           -Amos 1:1

And the valley of the hills shall be stopped up…as it was stopped up as a result of the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah.

            -Zechariah 14:5

After that one, in 759 BCE, we know of a number of other major quakes: in 31 BCE, 68 CE, 553, 746, 963, 1033, 1067, 1138, 1202, 1546, 1837, 1927… If you were looking for reasons not to visit, now you have another one.

Like everyone else, it seems that our connection to place is not based on rational considerations. If people chose their location rationally, think of all the places that would be uninhabited today – places prone to killer hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, blizzards, terror, and violent crime. We are bound to places by memory, by history, by inertia, by ideology, by the joy of the spring after the blizzard, the calm after the earthquake. Place becomes part of our identity and it is nearly impossible to tear it out of us. There is a deep insight into human nature in the account of the First Earthquake, at Sodom (right on the fault line). The angels said to Lot’s family: “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you…” [Gen. 19:17] But “Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.” [Gen. 19:26]. And if you don’t believe it, you can see the pillar of salt by the shore of the Dead Sea, to this day. Meanwhile, here we sit, occupied with our trivial pursuit of peace and prosperity, waiting for the Big One.

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