Masada is perhaps the most easily recognizable remnant of the Maccabi war. According to the myth it was on this square mount with flat top where the Jews, defending themselves against an onslaught by the Roman enemy, choose to take their own life rather than fall over and be made to convert by the Romans. Because of this epic story of bravery and devotion that is at once both horrific and inspiring, Masada became a symbol for Jews and gentiles representing the cost and the gain that are the lot of faith when put in an extreme position. Today we will talk about what Masada means to the Jewish people, how this story of bravery in the face of death helped to shape the national ethos, and what we can learn by it.
Being a Jew, from a historical point of view, was seldom easy or safe. From slavery in Egypt during biblical times to the holocaust in more recent memory, living a Jewish life always seem to come hand in hand with grave danger. Perhaps this is the reason that the story of Masada echoes so strongly with people of the Jewish faith, as for Jews the possibility of death exists in any time and at any place because of their religion. The story of Masada demonstrates how for a Jew, even the worst of ends is insignificant in relation to the value of holding the belief.
Following the holocaust and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, Masada further increased for Jews in its symbolic meaning. As well known, Israel was born in the midst of a great strife, with an independence war that according to some lasts until this very day. The Jewish people in exile were not militant and very few of them ever went to a real battlefield, as a result the new Jewish warriors looked to their past to define their ethos as ideology driven, fearless and crafty. The myth of Masada quickly became important to the new country as it read it as a combination of the values of Judaism and Zionism, a battle of the land which is also a battle of the soul. In this way, the myth of Masada still continues to exist until this very day.
It bears saying, though, that the myth of Masada might be loosely based on actual fact. There are two historical arguments against it: the first is that the Jewish inhabitants of Masada were Sicariian Jews, a small violent sect within Judaism that has often killed and robbed other Jews, and the second is that there is no Roman documentation of such a siege but only of a military drill. That is to say, the myth of Masada is very influential, but as with every myth it requires a critical look.
So what is the truth of the story and its meaning? Each Jew and person might have his or her own ideas. The best way to learn it, though, is come, see the site and talk to the people. There is still much to learn from the story of Masada, so if you are taking a tour of Bethlehem, come and hear it for yourself.