Masada at Sunrise

I've got a pretty random travel throwback going on today.

Last weekend, there was nothing much on TV and I randomly decided to watch a History Channel show about Masada. And it sort of hit me that Masada was the site of what is possibly my favorite travel moment ever, yet I've never really talked about it particularly in-depth. So that's changing immediately.

Quick background: Masada is an ancient fortification atop a plateau in Israel's Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. It's known for the Siege of Masada, when Roman troops were attacking. Rather than surrender and be slaughtered, the 960 people living there decided to commit suicide en masse. They left their food stores untouched, so the conquering Romans could be sure that these deaths were no accident. So basically, even in death, these people flipped the Romans the bird, and the triumphant conquering of Masada turned into a giant "wompppp."

I'm probably not explaining it very well. But in any case, Masada is a really big deal and an incredibly important place to visit. It's also a bit of a thing to hike up there at sunrise, so that's what my group did. Or, well, that was the goal. We got a bit of a late start (an exhausted group of college students got a late start on a sunrise hike? Shocker), so the trek up the mountain was quite the speed-walk. On a personal note, I ran up a plateau in Israel at sunrise with a broken toe. So that's a fun story.

Masada itself was incredible, but the best part was that we were up there long enough to watch the swearing-in ceremony for new Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. Masada is the end of their 60 km run/hike through the desert to the ceremony, and we were there to cheer them on as they finished and got to see them get sworn in and mingle with them afterwards.

(Now, I always feel slightly strange blogging about Israel because the Middle East is such a sensitive topic. And a lot of people are anti-Israel, or at least against Israeli policies or how they conduct their international affairs. And that's fine, I'm not here to have a political debate. But if nothing else, my trip to Israel taught me that, no matter where we're all from, people are just people. We're the same everywhere. So if you do have an issue with Israel, I ask you to please know that I'm not advocating war or politicians or any of that, and to please appreciate the following from a purely human-to-human standpoint. They were a bunch of young boys who just accomplished something major.)

Watching these guys reach Masada was such a special thing. Israel employs a mandatory draft, but all the Israelis I got to know were so passionate about their homeland that being sworn into the IDF was an honor either way. Even more interesting were the handful of Americans among the soldiers, so passionate about a country they didn't even live in that they willingly moved halfway around the world to put their lives on the line. If you know me, you know that I love when people are passionate about something, so this level of dedication absolutely blew me away. They all looked so happy as they climbed the last few yards, just bursting with pride, and it was hard not to get emotional about it.

Look how happy that boy is!
 This is still one of my favorite things in the world. An American IDF soldier throwing up the U. Too amazing.

I find it really hard to explain Israel to people who've never been there. It's just... Jewish people are few and far between in America, and I didn't realize how strongly I've always felt like the odd man out until I went to Israel, where suddenly I was normal. I imagine it's the same for other people -- I mean, there are Americans voluntarily signing up for the IDF, so clearly there's a pretty strong attachment there! And I'm having trouble explaining why witnessing this swearing-in ceremony meant so much to me. I hate that people are killing each other, I don't come from a military family, and at this point I'd only been in Israel for like six days. But we were at this place that's so steeped in history, watching something so significant unfold in front of us...

I don't know what it is. But four years later I'm still at a loss for words.

Travel Tuesday

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