Last week a grandmother from Israel called me with a challenge. Her two grandsons, 11 and 14 are visiting from Pittsburgh. She wanted me to design a half day tour for them that would get them engaged in the Land of Israel. She felt they had been a bit too glued to their handheld devices since they had arrived. She also wanted to keep it affordable, so ATV tours, jeep tours, helicopter rides and the like were not the solution here.
I suggested that we do a tour in the footsteps of Jewish heroes in the Judean Lowlands known as the Shephela. She liked the idea, so here’s what we did.
First we drove to a lookout point on Tel Tzora. From there, the entire story of Samson comes to life. You are standing in the place where Samson lived. Looking down to the valley you can see Tel Batash, the site of Timna where Samson took his Philistine wife. You can also see down all the way to the coast where the 5 Philistine cities of Gat, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza and Ekron were, with the two smokestacks on the horizon helping us to find Ashdod.
I explained that the Israelites primarily lived on the hilltops while the Philistines controlled the flat areas with their iron chariots. Samson was unusual because, unlike the others from his tribe of Dan, he was not afraid to descend to the Philistine area below his home.
The boys did a little snooping around and discovered an ancient water cistern that I had never noticed!
Tel Beit Shemesh
Next we made a quick visit to Tel Beit Shemesh. It didn’t exactly fit into our theme, but I couldn’t just drive past such a great site without making a quick stop.I showed them the burial tombs from the First Temple period. The boys climbed in and were able to see what was the ancient Jewish way of burying the dead.
In each cave there are three beds for placing bodies. After the funeral, the tomb would be sealed up with a rock for a year. After a year the family would return to and open the tomb. They would find a skeleton laying on the bed. They would then gather the bones and place them in the deep pit that was hewn in the corner of the tomb. Over the generations the bones of all the members of the family would be mixed together in this pit. Thus the Biblical descriptions like, “and he laid with his fathers” or “he was gathered unto his fathers”.
Some scholars suggest that this ceremony of returning to the cemetery, opening the tomb and gathering the bones after a year is the source of our modern Jewish custom of “unveiling” the tombstone after a year.
Of course these tombs have been empty of bones for many centuries due to grave robbers, animals and the like, but they afford us a really great opportunity to see how our ancestors buried their dead.
Hurvat Midras (also spelled Khirbet Midras) is one of the many sites in the Shephela where we can see the ruins of Jewish villages destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt.
During the Revolt, the Jews dug caves and tunnels into the soft chalk rock under their houses. They used them as a place to store food and weapons for the revolt. When the revolt was finally put down. Many people hid in these caves for months before they were discovered.
Hurvat Midras is one of the many paces where you can see the remains of these Jewish villages and the caves and tunnels that were prepared under them. The tunnel at Hurvat Midras is quite long and you have to literally squirm on your belly at parts to get through. This site really brought to life what our ancestors went through during this time.
On the way back to the car, we ran into a Bedouin boy herding his sheep. I really wanted to get a picture of this boy with the two city boys from Pittsburgh. Since I saw that he was eyeing our flashlights, I told him he could have one if he would pose with them for a picture. He was very happy to oblige. It was the best $2 I have spent in a long time!
The Tanach tells us that the famous battle of David and Goliath took place between Azekah and Socho. Tel Azekah is located in British Park. From atop the Tel, you can see the Valley of Elah where the battle took place. You can just picture Goliath coming out to the battle field and challenging the Jews on the hill above to come down and fight.
We finished our visit just in time to daven Mincha and watch the awesome sunset from atop the Tel.
By the end of the day it was clear that both of these kids (and their grandparents) had a really great time even though there wasn’t an iPhone in site! They had such a great time that they wanted to do another day with me today before flying back to Pittsburgh. We spent the day in Ir David.