I am posting Chapter 2 of my new book. I hope you will decide to follow me on this journey. Simply put in email@example.com and register and you will be updated whenever I put in a new chapter.
The sky did not thunder, nor did the earth shake
As far as I know, there is no definitive modern-day book that a layperson can read that says start on this page, and then turn to that page and you will learn how to be a Jew. The religion is obscure and complicated, based on commentary, faith and stories, many of them fantastical. I did not begin at the beginning, wherever that might be.
I am still taking baby steps, doubting, questioning, seeking, and hitting the Holocaust wall daily. What do I mean by the Holocaust wall? So often, when I try to accept the daily prayers, I find myself asking: “Where was G-d during the Holocaust? Why didn’t He stop Hitler? Why did six million Jews die?” I will try my best to approach the subject of the Holocaust and Judaism later in the book.
After my beloved father passed away, I went back to that first draft of my book. It now seemed hollow, like grains of sand sifting through my fingers. How could I write about a Third Temple when I knew nothing about the First or Second Temples? I love research and yet I knew that I could spend ten years and still never touch on the meaning of what the Temples meant to the Jewish people.
I decided to write to some universities looking for a Judaic scholar. I received a letter from a professor telling me that one of the great scholars of our time was right in my own backyard at Florida International University. His name is Erik Larson (not the author). I called and made an appointment.
His office was small, a computer on the desk, his bicycle leaning against the wall. He was so young and handsome, I was certain I had the wrong room. I later learned that he spoke 14 languages, one of them ancient Aramaic. More importantly, he was the youngest man to ever work on deciphering the Dead Sea scrolls, brought to Israel by the rabbis. As unimaginable as it seemed, I was about to learn about Judaism from a non-Jew. And it would not be the first time. Two out of three other members of my writing group are Catholic and they knew more about my Judaism than I did.
In a subsequent meeting, Dr. Larson put a rendering of the First and Second Temples on his computer screen. He told me to try and imagine what it must have been like for a farmer or a shepherd to enter Jerusalem and then approach the largest edifice in the world. He was kind and patient as he walked me through the Temple, showing me where the women would have stood, where the Aron Ha’Kodesh, the Ten Commandments were held, where the priests stood, and where the sacrifices were made.
Sacrifices! The word and the idea mortified me. I think I can make this statement and be fairly accurate: most Jews do not know how, why or in what manner sacrifices were made on the Temple Mount. You may feel like this is the last thing you needed to learn about Judaism, and you might be right. But it is fascinating and just think you will learn something you never imaged learning.
Dr. Larson explained that thousands gathered every day at the Temple, and as long as the Temple stood Jews did not pray directly to G-d. We prayed through the priests, bringing our most prized and perfect animal to be offered as a sacrifice to G-d. The animal was slaughtered in the Courtyard, north of the altar. After the animal’s neck was cut with a perfect blade, causing instant death, a special vessel was used to receive blood form the animal’s neck. The blood was then sprinkled in various areas of the Temple according to the laws regulating the designated offering. Those laws are complicated and I will spare you the details.
Only after the destruction of the Temples did Jews begin to pray directly to G-d. When I left the professor, I felt empowered and ready to approach my story again.
I had befriended the young rabbi, Marc Phillip, at the synagogue I attended every morning. Inspired by his commitment and spirituality, I eventually found the courage to ask him to read my book for accuracy as it pertained to Judaism. And help me he did, keeping me from making mistakes like calling a rabbi’s wife from the second century a Rebbitzen.
In 2013 Rabbi Marc went to Israel with his wife and three sons. My book is set in Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Negev Desert. This town that I saw in my imagination is purely fictional as there has never been excavations in Ein Gedi to prove that people ever lived there, (Although many passages in the biblical writings refer to the inhabitants of Ein Gedi). In fact, today Ein Gedi is a glorious nature reserve.
Try to imagine my reaction, when the rabbi contacted me from Israel (Skype of course) to say that he and his family were on their way to Masada when they passed a sign pointing to an excavation in Ein Gedi. “How could we not go?” he said to me.
This is how I remember what he said next. “Ellen, they have uncovered a synagogue. Not just a mosaic floor, but walls as well. And it looks exactly like the synagogue your described in your book!”
My heart pounded in my chest and my breath stuttered. I got off the phone and said to my husband, “We have to go to Israel. I have to see that synagogue!”
Five months later my husband and I were driving through the surrealistic wilderness of Judean desert on our way to Ein Gedi. The topography was both tranquil and fierce. Surrounded by mountains, the sky above is royal blue, the land varying hues of yellow, beige and gold. Following the signs, I remember getting out of the car and thinking that it was not very impressive, this excavation I had come to see. There was a metal table set up and on it was placed some brochures explaining what had been unearthed: an ancient synagogue from the second century.
I followed a path marked by stones and stood on trembling legs in that excavated synagogue. As I stood there, I expected to feel the earth shake beneath my feet and the sky to be filled with lightning bolts. Tears sprung to my eyes. I felt nothing.
Yes, it was true that this synagogue looked like the one I had described in my book. But if this was my synagogue then why did it feel so wrong? I wandered around, touching the stone walls and breathing in the ancient musty sweet scent. I walked every inch and that is when I discovered a small plaque stuck into a corner that dated the building a hundred years after my story.
This was not the synagogue I had seen in my mind’s eye. Still, I believe with all my heart that one-day they will dig closer to the waterfall of Ein Gedi and when they do they will find the city and the synagogue I saw in my imagination.
As we drove from Ein Gedi I had so many apposing emotions. I was thrilled that excavations had begun, knowing that once the Israelis began to excavate they would continue to do so. But I was so disappointed that this was not the synagogue I imagined. Part of me just wanted to go back to the hotel, take a long shower and cry in private. But we were only a short drive from Masada. And I would never visit Israel without visiting that majestic symbol of Judaism that sits atop a rock plateau in the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Little did I know that the mystical experience I longed for would happen on Masada.
In 31 BCE, Herod the Great built a great palatial palace as a retreat on the mountain fortress of Masada. Ninety-seven years later the First Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome began. At that time, a group of Jewish zealots managed to overtake the Roman garrison holding Masada. When Jerusalem finally fell to the Romans, and the Second Temple was destroyed, hundreds of zealots fled with their families from Jerusalem seeking refuge on Masada.
As inconceivable as it seems, the Jews managed to hold out against the Romans on Masada for three long years. Then in 73 CE, the Tenth Legion marched against the Jewish stronghold. A siege was implemented and a wall built. Using thousands of tons of stone and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war, a three hundred and seventy five foot rampart was constructed. In 74 CE, the mountain walls of Masada were breached.
Two women survived the attack and told their story to Josephus Flavius, governor of Galilee. His is the only written account we have of what took place on Masada. What follows is Elazar’s final speech to his followers and Flavius’ account of what happened.
Elazar the leader of the Jews on Masada: Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice …We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.
Flavius the historian’s account: The defenders – almost one thousand men, women and children – led by Elazar ben Yair, burnt down the fortress and killed each other. The Zealots cast lots to choose ten men to kill the remainder. They then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the survivors. That last Jew then killed himself.
In Jewish tradition suicide is a sin. As the Talmud (Talmud explained later) puts it: “Against your will you were fashioned, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:29).
The Jews of Masada chose to die rather than be enslaved. Today many inductees into the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, take their oath to defend Israel on Masada.
As I walked around the fortress, seeing it with older eyes and a different perspective, I came upon a young rabbi who had set up a table. He was writing a Torah scroll. Written on parchment using quill and ink, every scroll is an exact duplicate of every Torah that came before it. There are 304,805 hand-written letters in the Torah and it takes approximately 2,000 hours to complete a scroll. That translates to a full-time job for a year. If a mistake is made when writing the scroll, than that entire portion must be rewritten.
It is said that the Torah was originally dictated from God to Moses, letter for letter. From there, the Midrash Devarim Rabba 9:4 tells us: Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the Tablets.
Midrash is the commentaries written to explain the Torah. I will explain that fuller in the coming chapters.
I waited in line for my turn to have the scribe write a letter in the Torah for me. When it was my turn he said, “Make a prayer first.” I closed my eyes and I prayed.
“What did you pray for?” he asked, his voice gentle as a breeze.
“Peace,” I replied.
He shook his head. “Everyone in the world should pray for peace. Today I want you to pray for yourself.”
A bit stunned, I closed my eyes again. I remember thinking if I am going to pray for myself then I am going to be really selfish.
“What did you pray for?” the rabbi asked again.
“I prayed that I would find the story for my next book.”
“What do you write?”
“Jewish historical fiction,” I replied.
At that moment something undeniably mystical happened. It was as if the rabbi captured me with his eyes. All sound evaporated, I could not feel my body and I was aware only of his presence.
“What you write is important and thousands will read your words.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a handful of shekels. He placed them in my hand. “Please send me your books.”
I was crying. I said, “Rabbi, I don’t want your money.”
“If you do not take my money, then I can not accept the books.”
Months later I received this letter. I have not corrected it. His words are just as they were written.
Dear Ellen, I read one of your books, “And So It Was Written” and was moved to tears. I must say that I should of held your book from the moment I started reading it, and not leave it until I’m finished, If only I could afford the time. I had to read sections in distant times like Shabbat Afternoon. So it became quite a routine part of my Shabbat. Along with my presence at Masada, I could almost see the characters of your book, hiding in the crevices of the rocks in the desert of Judea and Ein Gedi. I’m eager to read the second book, my wife gulped it in one week and enjoyed very much. Thank you. The book you wrote is really a gift to the people of Israel, so there is no doubt, You are some of the messiah breeze. May God bless your hands to continue to write books and bring a smile or emotional longing, on our way to a world of peace and love. With Love & Blessing,
Rabbi Ariel Joshua Louis
That letter is the reason I write.