“Renew our days as of old”
Have you ever imagined what Avraham and Sarah or the generation of Joshua that entered the Land of Israel after forty years in the desert saw here? Was it the barren hills that still characterize so much of Israel today? Or perhaps, based on many references to the richness of agricultural life in both the Tanach and the rabbinic texts, they saw something very different?
There are many exciting dimensions to the fulfillment of 2,000 years of yearning to “return” (hashiveinu) and “renew our days as of old.” In the early 1920s, Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni, recent olim (immigrants) to Israel from Russia, established the Museum of Biblical and Talmudic Botany at the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus. But their dream was to establish a “Garden of the Prophets and Sages.” In 1927, Ephraim wrote a proposal in which he stated: “If we can no longer hear the ringing words of the prophets, but we can see what they saw and smell what they smelled, let us therefore arrange a plant garden of our ancient literature, and learn to write in it and to read there from the Book of Books (the Torah) and the Song of Songs in the letters and the colors which were used for writing the Book of Books and was the source for all of the Psalms” (www.neotkedumim.org.il).
The museum was unfortunately destroyed in the battles for Jerusalem in 1948, when access to Mt. Scopus fell into Jordanian hands. But the dream of a Biblical nature reserve remained very much alive in the Hareuvenis’ son, Nogah, who dedicated his life to the fulfillment of his parents’ vision. In 1964, 625 acres in the Ben Shemen Forest area were allocated for the project, with the help and encouragement of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Tons of topsoil were trucked in, ancient terraces, wine presses, olive presses, mikvaot and dwelling structures were restored and thousands of plants were rooted into the soil so that twenty-first-century visitors can get a visual sense of what the land looked like in Biblical times.
But more than that, seeing the vegetation as our forefathers saw it gives glimpses into understanding the metaphors and moral lessons of the Bible in a way that only people who are personally familiar with the vegetation can fully grasp. Neot Kedumim (Oasis of Antiquity), the Biblical Landscape Reserve, located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has invested in thousands of signs along every trail on which are written verses, quotes from the Mishnah and Talmud or midrashim. All of a sudden, the text takes on a new life with the plants right before your eyes. There are so many examples that it would be possible to fill not only pages but volumes! Below are just a few.
Psalm 128 refers to the blessing of being fruitful and having many children (“Your children will be like olive shoots surrounding your table,” 128:3). Find an olive tree and look at its base. You will understand what every ancient familiar with the olive tree instinctively understood when he read this pasuk.
On a more esoteric level, look at Psalm 92, the psalm that we are most familiar with because of its inclusion in the Shabbat tefillot. It was also recited in the Beit Hamikdash. One of the verses states: “A righteous man will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall” (92:13). On one of the trails, a palm tree stands next to a cedar. Look at the two trees and see if the pasuk takes on new significance. There are many midrashim about the palm tree and its usefulness to mankind, and numerous signs all over the park highlight Biblical and rabbinic insights into the palm tree, called dekel in Hebrew.
One of my favorite spots in Neot Kedumim is the sheep and goat pen where visitors are invited to move the animals from point A to point B (must be arranged in advance). One quickly discovers that shepherding is not simple! In the ancient world, being a shepherd was evidently the ideal training ground for leadership, as Avraham, Moshe and David were all shepherds. And inevitably, one walks away with a renewed sense of understanding and awe with regard to the Shepherd of all mankind (Psalm 23).
There are four marked trails (A, B, C and D) with various themes singled out in each of them. A descriptive brochure of the trails can be downloaded from the Neot Kedumim web site (www.neot-kedumim.org.il) or purchased at the gift shop. Trails range in length from 2.5 kilometers (about a mile and a half) to 5 kilometers (three miles). Be sure to bring a hat and plenty of water and allow ample time to look, smell, read, think and simply enjoy!
And finally, something very special for this time of year. In addition to groves of etrogim, dekel trees (lulavim), myrtle and willow (all of which are accompanied by numerous insightful signage), Neot Kedumim has constructed a trail of sukkot based on the first perek of Masechet Sukkah enumerating kosher and non-kosher sukkot. The mishnah (1:1) tells us that a sukkah that is too tall is not valid; Neot Kedumim features such a sukkah. Likewise, a sukkah that is too short is invalid. Continue a few feet down the trail to one which your children will have to crawl into because it’s so close to the ground!
What does a sukkah on top of another sukkah look like (1:2)? There is an example of that too. What does a sukkah with a grapevine for schach look like (1:4)? How about a sukkah on a boat (2:3)? Take a look at the lake! For older children, take a copy of the mishnah along with you. For younger children, there are many picture books and posters based on the mishnah. If you are at Neot Kedumim around Sukkot time, this is a trail not to be missed!
Designated picnic groves are on the grounds, so you might want to bring lunch with you. Of course, during the holiday of Sukkot there are also numerous kosher sukkot where you can eat.
In 1994, Dr. Nogah Hareuveni, who was a physicist, was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his efforts in creating Neot Kedumim. The judges wrote:
Neot Kedumim, the national Biblical Nature Reserve in Israel, near Ben Shemen Forest, is a unique phenomenon which fills a top priority national goal. It has created a framework which shows the nature and agriculture of the Land of Israel as it has been interwoven within our heritage: in the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrashim and the Mesora. It brings together Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora to the Land of Israel and her plants by connecting the days of the Bible and the Mishna with the present day . . . Past, present and future converge with ancient landscapes to create a continuous web expressing the essence of our lives, in which the roots of the past are the growth of the future.
The root (shoresh) kuf, dalet, mem in Hebrew can be used to mean past (kedem) or future (as in kadimah—forward). Neot Kedumim brings the past to life with a glimpse into the future of a thriving, vibrant and restored Eretz Yisrael.
The main entrance to Neot Kedumim is located on Route 443, just west of Modiin. If you are traveling from Jerusalem or Modiin on 443, keep your eyes open for a right turn off the main road. If you are coming from the west, you will have to drive past Neot Kedumim for a few extra kilometers and return on the westbound lanes. Look for the signs that indicate the place to make the required 180-degree turn. Be prepared for a delightful and insightful visit into the landscape of Eretz Yisrael as it was “k’kedem.”
Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011.972.2.671.3518 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.