I have been living in Israel close to ten years and have read and reread that biblical command spoken to Abraham, but I confess that I have not spent enough time following in the literal footsteps of my namesake. Don’t get me wrong, my job as OU Israel Director of Communications takes me to almost every city, settlement and neighborhood in the country. From Makom Balev parties in Tzfat to Batim Yehudim on the coast, to Oraita pool clubs in Ariel and of course Nitzan, Sderot, northern cities, and other places throughout the country where we offer support, therapy and comfort—I have certainly put the kilometers on my car visiting all over the land.
But that’s just the problem; I have seen the land at 100 kilometers an hour, clearly not God’s intention. ‘Hithalech’–make yourself walk the land, inhale its width and breadth, ingest the planes of God’s miraculous natural reservoir—“ki lecha et’nena” for to you I have bequeathed this land.
Last week, I walked.
I joined one day on the successful program called ‘Shvil Yisrael’, a path which traverses the entire length of Israel from Eilat in the south all the way north to Mt. Hermon. For several years, it was simply a path for hikers to experience the sights and scenes of Israel. But close to twelve years ago after the greatest air disaster in the history of the State—the helicopter disaster in which 73 soldiers died when two apache helicopters collided, a change took place. One family mourning the loss of their son Avi Hefner, chose to memorialize their son by injecting this trek with purpose, meaning, unity and positive feelings for Israelis and Jews all over. Calling the trip “Avi’s Shvil Yisrael” they invited friends and strangers to join them on this 940 kilometer journey. Their goal was to use the trip to engage residents throughout the country, develop an appreciation of the history of our land and our people, as well as open up dialogue between different types of Jews. Lately, 10,000 people a year join Avi’s family and learn, grow and emerge as healthier, happier and more appreciative souls.
I joined as a representative of OU Israel which coordinated some of the events that day. Covering fifteen kilometers of an uphill climb from the central planes of Bet Shemesh to the mountainous region of Gush Etzion, part of the day was dedicated to education about the famous story of heroism and tragedy known as the ‘lamed heh’, the thirty five soldiers who were killed on their way from Jerusalem to Kfar Etzion to bring much needed supplies to the embattled settlement in 1948. We walked the route taken by the legendary soldiers and on the way, learned their story, felt their urgency and understood their plight and their ultimate downfall. We were joined by several personalities who shined much light on the story of the battle; some lost relatives on that day, others fought valiantly to return to their land.
The second half of the day was dedicated to visiting the very settlements those 35 soldiers aimed to protect. Having been kicked out in 1948, they returned triumphantly in 1967 to build up the settlements, return to their ancestral lands and create a unique place of tranquility in the heart of the Judean hills.
At 6:30 in the morning, I set out to the starting point so we could walk in the cool morning air and peel off layers as the sun baked the verdant terrain. Our starting point was Kibbutz Halamed Heh, a few kilometers south of Beit Shemesh. Around two hundred people gathered, representing a large segment of the Israeli population: they were men and women, young and old, religious and secular, left wing and right wing, native Israelis and olim (me) as well as tourists. Russians Jews, Sephardic Jews, Born and bred in Israel Jews, high school kids, army kids, married with kids, retirees with grandkids… Everyone came with the same purpose, a common goal which was to transform our understanding of this historical event and intensify our connection to the land of Israel and to each other.
A young man stands up before the crowd and has two statements to make; this is classic Israel living. He begins with instructions on how to go to the bathroom in the wilderness. “Treat nature kindly we only have one earth”, all this was said with sincerity and reverence to the land upon which we would all tread for the next ten hours. The next thing this young man did was recite Tefilat Haderech (Jewish prayer for the journey). Beginning with an apology that this was a liturgical debut for him, he nevertheless flawlessly recited this prayer asking God to protect us on this journey and to return us to our homes in peace. Was he observant in Orthodox Jewish law? Perhaps not. Does that prevent him from leading the prayers and understanding the significance of Tefilat Haderech in the land of Israel? Absolutely not! How beautiful an expression of the uniqueness of the people and the land of Israel!
On My Way
The walk began and I quickly realize I was unprepared for this trek. While I diligently run on the treadmill daily which accounted for my ability to sustain the physical strain, I forgot about food, drink, and proper attire. Whoops! Fortunately, the atmosphere and camaraderie in the group was at the level at which our Sages would be proud—what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is yours…
The pace was set at 10 minutes a mile. You begin to feel it as the terrain slopes upwards and the hills of Judea come into sight. Our first leg was to reach the great tree an hour’s distance from our location. At this resting point our guide Arale, a remarkable young man who shed light on everything from the history of Israel to the various plants we saw during our walk, presented us with the map of 1948 and the dramatic events which triggered the War of Independence and the subsequent removal from the Gush Etzion settlements.
As we marched on, I had a chance to meet a kaleidoscope of personalities. Yoel is 75 (at least!) and ahead of the pack. He is a physicist from Russia who moved with his family in the early 90’s and settled in Gush Etzion; Tali is an officer in the army, who lost her grandfather during the battle in Gush Etzion; Hersh is a professor of History at the University of Toronto, he came specifically to participate in the walk; Olga is from the Ukraine, she is studying in Hebrew University now; Moshe lives in Pardes Chana and heard about the opportunity to walk the land of Eretz Yisrael—the list goes on and with each unique personality one experiences the magic of ‘kibbutz galuyot’ and the desire on the part of each Jew to find a common bond, a united goal.
Masuot Yitzchak: Refael Denan’s Oasis in Gush Etzion
After an emotional talk from Yonatan Tzuberi, who lost his brother at the ‘givat hakrav’ (the battle hill), the group made its way to Kfar Etzion and Masuot Yitzchak, the original settlements lost in 1948 but revitalized over the last 40 years. Touring the Bet Knesset and meeting with the mayor of Gush Etzion, Shaul Goldstein, many felt like a part of history and understood the significance of these special mountains and their unique story. It is a little known fact that the reason for the institution of the national day of mourning, Yom Hazikaron, on the 4th of Iyar stemmed from the great tragedy which took place there on that day in 1948 when the settlement was taken over and 120 people were murdered. Chanan Porat spoke to the group of his personal pride in returning to reestablish the settlement in ’67. A former member of Knesset, his parents were from Kfar Etzion and he was removed from there in 1948.
The day ended with a festive dinner at Masuot where Rafael Denan hosted and taught the group about the rich history of Gush Etzion and the unique role it played in the settlement of Eretz Yisrael in the early years of the establishment of the State.
I learned much about the land, our past and about the many faces that comprise our wonderful nation. I have certainly come to appreciate the wisdom of God’s ancient command—‘kum hithalech ba’aretz’, force myself to walk the land and tour its sites.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications of OU Israel.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.