Saturday, April 16, 2016

Masada—Heroic Martyrdom or Fanatic Waste?

An aerial view of the ruins of the Fortress of Masada today.  The siege ramp built by the Romans over a period of months and from which the walls were finally breached is clearly visible on the left.

Today marks the date traditionally ascribed to the Fall of Masada to the Roman Legions—April 16, 63 CE.  It is an event of enormous symbolic importance in Jewish history, elevated by the experience of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and modern archeological excavations that have confirmed much of the story as related the Judeo-Roman historian Josephus.  Details of the end of the long siege laid by the Romans are stomach turning—the suicide of the warriors of the rebellious sect of the Zealots known as the Sicarii  and the slaughter of their wives, children, and elders to prevent them from becoming Roman slaves.  As many as 960 were said to have died that awful day, though the true number will never be known and some archeologists suspect the numbers were far lower.
The question that haunts us is was this the ultimate heroic sacrifice of a freedom loving people—the Alamo of American mythmaking writ large—or was it a senseless act of fanaticism—akin to the People’s Temple mass suicide or the Branch Davidian holdout in Waco, Texas?  Much depends on the modern political lessons one is pre-disposed to draw from the story.
Of course, such an epic tale and its emotional wallop have made Masada a ripe inspiration for poetry.

Yitzhak Lamdan in  Israel, 1949
The most famous of the poets represented here is Yitzhak Lamdan—often called Isaac in the West—who was born in the Ukraine in the Russian Empire in 1899.  He came to British ruled Mandatory Palestine in 1920, a part of the Third Aliyah (Third Wave) of Zionist immigration after World War I and the upheavals associated with the Russian Revolution and Civil War.  In 1927 he published Masada: A Historical Epic in Hebrew from which the lines below were excerpted.  The poem held up the stand at Masada as a heroic example for the persecuted and endangered Jewish diaspora.  By inference it held up a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a fortress/refuge.  As such it was embraced Zionist movement as a national epic. 
Later stanzas of the poem warned that Zion, like Masada, could become a trap which ensnares the best of Jews and leads to their annihilation.  The Zionists ignored that part and later when the poem was included in Hebrew text books those stanzas were often omitted entirely.
The poem was translated into most major European languages and widely circulated by the Zionist Movement press.  Some historians credit it with inspiring the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in January of 1943.  It was also a rallying call during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or Israeli War of Independence.
Lamdan died in the State of Israel in 1955 as a revered cultural hero.
Who are you that come, stepping heavy in silence?
—The remnant.
Alone I remained on the day of great slaughter.
Alone, of father and mother, sisters and brothers.
Saved in an empty cask hid in a courtyard corner.
Huddled, a child in the womb of an anxious mother.
I survived.
Days upon days in fate’s embrace I cried and begged
for mercy:
Thy deed it is, O God, that I remain.
Then answer: Why?
If to bear the shame of man and the world.
To blazon it forever—
Release me! The world unshamed will flaunt this shame
As honor and spotless virtue!
And if to find atonement I survive
Then Answer: Where?
So importuning a silent voice replied:
“In Masada!”
And I obeyed that voice and so I came.
Silent my steps will raise me to the wall,
Silent as all the steps filled with the dread
Of what will come.
Tall, tall is the wall of Masada.
Deep, deep is the pit at its feet.
And if the silent voice deceived me,
From the high wall to the deep pit
I will fling me.
And let there be no sign remaining,
And let no remnant survive.

—Yitzhak Lamdan

The Romans move their siege engine--a massive battering ramp up their ramp and to the walls of Masada in the climactic moments of the battle.  Inside the walls knowing that defeat was inevitable, the women, children and old are being hacked to death by the defenders, or thrown down wells and off the walls.

Martin Rasmussen is a 26 year old writer who has published several poems on line.  The third and last poem, On Masada was submitted and posted to a poetry site anonymously

Today I Met a Jew

Today I met a Jew
And I looked into her eyes
I say ten plagues being bought
For ten wonders, just to be the chosen people.

Today I met a Jew
And the smell of her hair
Made me think of the red sea
And all that’s lost beneath it.

Today I met a Jew
And was reminded of an exile
That lasted for a thousand years,
And how it ended.

Today I met a Jew
But found God
In the pages of a people’s history.

Never another Masada!

—Martin Rasmussen

On Masada
Did drip
—the zealot's blood—
when engines did array,
on Masada hill that day.

Rebellion, tho’ long overdue,
beneath the Roman yoke
 . . . in isolation broke.
Last bastion of oppressed folk.

What unified demeanour gave them up
to be a Roman slave?
How can resistance
—in their eyes—
reduce them thus
 . . . the world despise?

Can bring to me the longest day
when women ...
children ...
did he slay?
Not yet awhile
 ... we think it’s done
 ... on that stark hill that stands alone.

Four Heavens lighted up
and yet.
In consequence ...
In suffering ...
Did one so fearless then as fret.
Smote fearlessly the one before
—the one last held the winning straw?
As ramparts built upon the shore
of this poor isle...

Author unidentified
From Poets From a Tender Age

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