by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)
O my friends, why are we so earnest to kill ourselves?... It may be said that it is a manly act for one to kill himself. No, certainly, but a most unmanly one; as I would consider the captain, who sinks his own ship out of fear of an approaching storm, to be an arrant coward.
-Josephus Flavius speaks to his men at Yodfat; Wars of the Jews, III, 8:5
Shortly after we moved to Shorashim 20 years ago, and I started leading study tours to sites in our area, a colleague took me on a visit to the ruins of Yodfat, about 10 minutes' drive from here. Since then, I have been back there dozens of times, to lead tours, to run activities, to learn more about the place from archaeologists who have studied it. The other day our educational center ran, for the tenth straight year, a field study day for 150 seventh graders from the local junior high school. November weather is risky, and we've been fried by heat waves and rained out (once in mid-activity); this day was close to perfect. One of the attractions of Yodfat is its wild flowers. In the early fall, it is a pilgrimage site for elementary school classes, to see the amazing flowering of the chatzav (squill), whose white stalks of flowers cover the entire tel. Once the rains come, the hillsides turn into lush meadows with a whole spectrum of the common spring wildflowers. But right now we are still between seasons, and the dominant color is brown. Even so, I still get a lot of pleasure out of just being there - even in the company of 150 seventh graders.In 67 CE, Yodfat was a small Jewish village. It sits on a hill surrounded on three sides by deep valleys - and higher mountains beyond them; the north side is less steep, and the path from nearby Moshav Yodfat (founded in the early 60s) is an easy climb. The sides are loose rock; the top is an outcropping of bedrock. When the Roman army began to pacify the Galilee, Yodfat was the first major battle they fought. Joseph ben Mattityahu, commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee, personally supervised the resistance at Yodfat. The Romans besieged the town for 47 days before overcoming the Jewish defenses. It was there that Joseph betrayed his fellow leaders, escaping their suicide pact, and surrendered to Vespasian, who named him Josephus Flavius.
With the kids, we learn about ancient weapons systems, assembling and firing a model catapult; we learn about conditions in a siege and draw rainwater from still functional cisterns; we study the geography and topography of the region; we see the correlation between Josephus' history and the physical remains of the town; and we analyze Josephus' debate with his men on suicide vs. surrender (perhaps in the very cistern where that debate took place). The students take notes and photographs for the reports they'll have to write, and sometimes you can even catch them actually thinking about the timeless dilemmas that the story poses.
Archaeologists excavated at Yodfat for a few seasons, exposing fortifications and homes and workshops. However, the place is pretty much untouched; certainly nothing has been reconstructed. Indeed, in thinking about why I find it so attractive - beyond the physical beauty and the interesting history - I guess it's the sense of authenticity: Yodfat has not yet been made into a park. No parking lot, no bathrooms, no graded paths, no maintenance, no refreshment stand. It was never resettled. There are no layers of civilization. What you see is what you could have seen after that battle in 67. The plaster is still on the cistern walls. It has been, I suppose, slowly crumbling for 2,000 years and continues to do so, helped along here and there by Bedouin shepherds and local seventh graders. Moreover, for all its historical significance, it is a small place, not so well-known, not on the tourist trail. Most days you can have it all to yourself, in total silence. And surveying the ruins and the lovely Galilean terrain beyond them, you can take advantage of the silence to contemplate the fascinating and complex and sometimes problematic ties of identity and emotion and memory that bind us to particular landscapes.