When Abraham and Sarah entered Canaan at the Ladder of Tyre, they hiked across the width and breadth of the Land of Israel. They did this because to walk the land, to feel it under your feet, to clasp it in your hands and in your fingernails, is to make it a part of you.
We heard this story as we sat in the shade of the Ladder of Tyre, about to enter the banana fields, just one hour more to the sea. The Livnot van had driven all the way out to deliver us ice-cold water and melon, some welcome respite from our blistered toes, our chaffed and dirty bodies. The afternoon sun burned a path towards our last stop, as we hitched up our backpacks and set off on our last legs, towards the sea.
Three days before, 23 of us set off from Tzfat; chevre, past chevre, banot sherut, an Israeli flag, a water gun and Shlomo, our programme co-ordinator, guide, teacher and friend. We stepped out of the Livnot campus at 6.30am and headed down, out of Tzfat, towards the foothills of Mount Meron.
Before long we were out of the town and surrounded by forest, stopping for our first break at an ancient synagogue and in sight of a British police station from Mandatory times and the grave of Hannah and her Seven Sons. The rest of the morning the trail followed a river bed, now dry as a bone but previously it had been the industrial heart of Tzfat during its golden age. When the Spanish exiles built their spiritual centre among these hills in the 16th century, they also built mills and bridges, creating a world famous cotton industry which helped fund the town and its teachers.
We continued the tradition of Chevruta, the unique style of Jewish learning, de
bating over a text and working out what it means to us. Shlomo led us to a cave which people have made their home for tens of thousands of years. There we sat, snacked, and debated what being connected to the Land of Israel means for us today.
In the height of the midday sun we rested by a waterfall in the shade of a forest. Our energy replenished, the afternoon passed in the blink of an eye and we made it to our campsite an hour ahead of schedule. But there was no time to waste as we prepared for a very special Livnot Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Livnot wants everyone to have an experience of the Jewish holidays. On this Galilee Fellowship programme, along with incredible Shabbat’s, we have had a Tu Bishvat seder and a Purim Party. But what better time to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day than whilst hiking the land itself?
All of the Chevre prepared something connected to the day; songs, readings, a skit, yoga, dancing, and sharing what makes Israel special for us. We Beer-BQ’d, set up camp, and went to sleep under the stars.
5am wake-up call with Shlomo and his guitar, although more than a few of us had been woken in the night by the wailing of jackals. After an early breakfast and packing up the campsite, we prepared for the day’s hike. We were going to scale Mount Meron, and face the challenges of the Sea of Thorns and the Suicide Slide.
We made it to the top of the mountain and sat down in the ruins of an ancient synagogue. In Hebrew a synagogue is a Beit Knesset, literally a house of meeting. Although the columns had long tumbled, we sat as they would have done in ancient times, together in a circle, looking out over rolling hills of the Galilee.
This was Tuesday morning, and as we talked about the tragedies the Jewish people have faced, from the destructions of the temple to the expulsions and pogroms and struggles to live here in the Land of Israel, we learned about one more tragic story.
The three boys who had been abducted by terrorists two weeks before, whose story we had followed every morning on the news, had been found murdered. The tragic ending we had all feared had come to pass. There was nothing at all we could do except cry, comfort, and sing.
We trekked past the Chair of Elijah, a stone column jutting out into the sky that Jewish legend says is the place where the Messiah will appear. We found the shade of a tree beside an ancient well for another Chevruta session, discussing the teachings of Hillel.
The next part was a downhill road we trekked along in record time. Probably because we knew that there was a Druze village at the end, with a supermarket! After spending a bit too much time in their chiller, we marched on till the House of Genies, an abandoned Druze building where we slept as soon as we hit the ground.
Long trousers were the only option as we hit the Sea of Thorns. We were covered by spiky plants that at times blocked out the sky; but we forged a path through, under and over. The Sea opened up eventually to the Suicide Slide, a sheer face of rock which dropped towards the road, hundreds of feet below. By now, this was a challenge we could all face working together, and together, we made it to the road below.
Another hour walk along a flat road, the hills of the Galilee ahead of us, took us to a Druze café. Shlomo had told us about the hospitality and kindness of the Druze people, but we were unprepared for our experience at the café. For not many shekels each, we had fresh lemon water, hot pita and labna cheese and strong black coffee. More than enough to power us through the next two hours, into the west and the setting sun, towards our night’s rest.
Hotdogs, chicken, vegetarian schnitzel, beer and a campfire; we were tired and sore, blistered and chaffed, but just had one day more to go.
5am. Shlomo and his guitar. Last day of the hike. Breakfast, clean up the camp site, filled up 6 litres of water, 13 hours of hiking to go. Fortunately 20 minutes in to the hike there was a gas station where we stopped for coffee.
Soon we got to the national park with scenery that looked like the set of Avatar. Then down into the river which would take us, finally, to the sea. We crossed the river at least ten times, but the most spectacular way was the Wall of Life – a rocky overhang with the river below. We arrived at another cliff diving and swimming place to cool off and have our final Chevruta session of the Galilee Fellowship, about what makes the Land of Israel special to us.
Hours more along the dusty road followed, past Crusader castles on hilltops and skirting the river back and forward. Finally, as the sun began to lower in the sky, we got to the banana fields in the shadow of the Ladder of Tyre. One more hour to the sea. We were nearly there.
Nina, one of the Bat Sherut who had left Tzfat with us, raised our spirits as the exhaustion of the last three days fell upon us. She led us in literally ‘going bananas’ in the banana fields, sword-fighting with leaves and stalks which had fallen on the ground.
The road opened up before us, the sea was visible, we were coming to the end. But Nina was on the ground. She had sprained her ankle and it was bad. We were so close and Nina of all people was determined to get us to the sea. We tried to carry her, she tried to hop along using the flagpole for support, but it was too much. Less than an hour from the sea we had come to our hardest challenge.
Whether it was from something Divine I don’t know, but just at that moment we found a pallet by the side of the road. Nina lay across it, her ankle raised up on towels, we hoisted her into the air and carried the pallet on our shoulders. Our strength and energy returned to us, Nina hoisted the flag up and led us in song. We didn’t carry Nina, it was her that carried us those final feet to the sea.
We had made it. The sun was setting behind the clouds, blazing the sky in golden twilight, the sea was warm and each of us glowed with a sense of accomplishment. Not just that we had done it, but we had done it together.
Beyachad El HaYam – Together to the sea.