This morning, we visited David Ben-Gurion’s tomb, which turned out to be a solid three-minute walk from where we had stayed the night before, in a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Our tour educator, Yoav, explained why Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, chose to be buried there rather than, say, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Our kibbutz, Sde Boker, was in fact one Ben-Gurion worked and lived at after retiring from politics; he had been inspired years earlier, according to Yoav, by the sight of a few pioneers who vowed to settle the land that they had defended a couple years before from Egyptian invaders during the War of Independence. Not incidentally, Yoav added, the kibbutz and tomb also lie at the southernmost point of, well, the Promised Land: the geographical area that, in Numbers, Moses reports God has pledged to His people. This brings up a raft of complications, of course: The modern-day political state of Israel includes land (everything south of where we are, down to the resort town of Eilat) not in this Promised Land and does not include much of what was then Judea and Samaria, now known as the West Bank. The more interesting complication for me, though, is the importance of all of this to Ben-Gurion: The father of Labor Zionism was a staunch secularist who nonetheless knew his Torah as well as any yeshiva student. Why was it important for him to be placed in the biblical Promised Land, and in such a way (at the border) as to emphasize that distinction? This paradox, of a nonreligious state dedicated to redeeming the land promised to the Jews by God, is at Zionism’s heart.
The morning hike was a break from such weightiness, although three-plus liters of water later I still feel parched. We drove down to the bottom of a riverbed largely (though not totally) bereft of water—from a distance, you could follow the river’s path by looking for where the trees are—and then hiked along it, to its base at a small waterfall, and then up, up, up, by way of steps thoughtfully carved for us approximately 16 centuries ago by the first Christian monks (and, in two places, metal ladders thoughtfully placed there by people who want us to hike there). These monks lived in caves along the mountain’s ridges, one of which we took refuge in from the stifling heat—29 degrees reads our bus, which is to say, mid-80s, and it feels hotter when you are out in the sun for two hours.
Meanwhile, we are off for lunch to Dimona, home to a mall as well as Israel’s unofficial nuclear facility. The afternoon will feature camel-riding; the evening will presumably feature not sitting down.