The Dead Sea: Spiritual Water and Tikkun Olam

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Floating in the waters of the Dead Sea was interesting, but not too pleasant some of the time. Often, the highly concentrated salts entered my eyes or nose, stinging them harshly. But I relaxed and floated high above normal levels, because the salty waters lend additional buoyancy.

This stinging was because the waters are almost nine times more saline than the ocean. White salts coated the stones surrounding the sea. This is a different place.

The difference was also reading on my watch, whose altimeter simply read "LO." Timex was completely unprepared for reading the high pressure at 1,374 feet below sea level. At this (lack of) elevation, it's also hard to get a sun tan or burn, as ultraviolet light is attenuated.

The sea may be even lower now, as much water has been diverted to Israel and Jordan, two of some of the most water starved places on earth. Even the largest river, the Jordan, would be a small stream or creek by most standards. With less water reaching the Dead Sea, last year the waters fell another three feet, extending the record for the lowest point on earth.

The Dead Sea is also a place of further extremes: a violent earthquake-prone rift valley, where cliffs rise thousands of feet up to Jerusalem limestone in the west and Petra sandstone in the east.

Here I stayed for two nights at Ein Gedi National Park, where natural fresh springs come from the limestone rock in the Judean Hills. I was here to help the Israel National Parks Authority a bit with a Delos Project. In Jerusalem, I met with Linda Whittaker, who is a fellow member of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group of the Society for Conservation Biology. She was extremely helpful and friendly and we talked for several hours in her office about Israel, nature, Zionism, and more.

The Delos Project is an International Union for the Conservation of Nature initiative that is looking at spiritual sites all over the world. Linda selected Ein Gedi as Israel's case study because of its Biblical references and asked me to see if I could find more information for the project, even if a little.

Linda explained Israel's current philosophy, where the land has seen one thousand or more years of neglect. One of the focal points of Zionism is reconnecting with the land and restoring it in the process, one of many facets of tikkun olam, which means "repairing the world" and is seen as the true spiritual role of humanity. Throughout Israel, dozens of national parks have been created to protect the natural heritage of the land, tikkun olam at work.

This is evident at Ein Gedi, where Nubian Ibex, once nearing extinction, are now recovering--though still endangered--and number almost two hundred around Ein Gedi. They are very tolerent of people. While I was eating lunch one day in the shade of a boulder, one ibex peered around the corner, looking at me for a minute before walking away. This was quite a contrast with the more skittish ibex I saw in Central Asia, where they clearly saw humans as predators.

Ein Gedi's spring water was not just a haven for ibex, but many species of wild animals and unusual species of plants, including aromatic plants used for perfumes. The legendary balsam tree, whose perfume was concentrated to form a healing balm treasured around the world. Myrrh is a known relative. Scientists and others still have not been able to identify the enigmatic balsam tree.  What is known, however, is that desert environments can produce plants with interesting and important chemical properties.

During the time of Jesus, balsam was produced in Ein Gedi and was perhaps the town's secret that a the synagogue mosaic inscription forbids residents from telling to outsiders.

Other plants were capers, indigo, cofar, and Christ's thorns. The latter bush was thought to be used as the crown of thorns during the Passion. Cofar was used to make henna and is quoted in the Song of Solomon:

"My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna flowers in the vineyards of Ein Gedi" (1:14).

The spiritual nature of water cannot be overlooked, both in terms of its ability to bring life to a landscape and also in how it is transformative. Ein Gedi is the only large fresh oasis in the Dead Sea area, bringing forth dozens of plant species found nowhere else in Israel. Next to the Ein Gedi spring, a Chalcolithic era temple ruin lies on a High Place. Many have attributed its significance to the nearby spring, seeing it as a place to worship a water deity, similar to the many naga spirits throughout India.  Today, Ein Gedi spring water is bottled and labeled "En Gedi."  One manager of the bottling plant said: "when they hear the name, they see the nature reserve."  And of course there's a Nubian Ibex drawn on the label too.  You aren't just drinking water, you're drinking the place and the values associated with that spiritual place.

Ein Gedi is also known as the hiding place of David: "Behold, David is in the desert of Engaddi. Saul, therefore, took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went out to seek after David and his men, even upon the most craggy rocks, which are accessible only to wild goats (ibex)" 1 Samuel 24:2-3.

The idea of desert and wilderness as a hiding place, a place of meditation, a place of purification, a place of wisdom is a repeating theme in the Bible and central to the concept of the rise and fall of people and society. When the Tower of Babel rises too high, God reduces it back to rubble and soil. When Jerusalem becomes immoral, God scatters the people and turns the land back into wilderness or desert, where thorns creep into the fields and vineyards.

Prophets--Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist (the "voice crying in the wilderness"), and Jesus--all gain spiritual knowledge, have visions, meet God, or are tested spiritually in the desert wildernesses. At the same time that God destroys what rises too high, out of balance, God also lifts up what bows low and is purified.

Thus wilderness is the balance to civilization and one is not possible without the other.

For three days in Ein Gedi, I walked around to see the place with my own eyes and to talk with the park staff. At the same time, I felt that the picture of Ein Gedi was incomplete by itself, as it was part of the entire Dead Sea landscape.

Nearby was the citadel town of Masada, perched on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. On a hot dry Hamsin day, the Sahara Desert dust finely hazed the sky and entered my dry throat as I drank excessive amounts of water while climbing to the summit, one thousand feet above. Masada was one of the last Judaen strongholds, known as Zealots, who killed themselves just as the Romans were about to enter their fortifications. The Zealots were mostly self-sufficient, with skillful water collection methods and agriculture, though they raided Ein Gedi too.

Around Ein Gedi were also the Essenes, who were pious communal dwellers of the wilderness, whose school was called "Oneness with God." They were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran. In Jerusalem, I looked at the exhibited scrolls and admired their age, state of preservation, and their meaning. As desert dwellers, they conducted purification rituals using precious water, similar perhaps to the Chalcolithic temple priests thousands of years before.  They meditated often and were rigorous in their chastity and other vows.

The pure Essenes contrasted themselves with the city-dwelling Jews, who they wrote would side with the anti-Christ in the end.  Just like the prophets of the Bible,  they saw the masses as impure and not living according to the ways of God.

John the Baptist was an Essene and some believe Jesus to also be an Essene, perhaps a Nazarene, a branch of the Essenes. This would further explain the use of baptism with water, the sacredness of water surrounded by desert wilderness, where Jesus also was tested for forty days. The combination of inhospitable wilderness with life-giving spiritual water was for balance in a desert world.

Finally, all the water flows into the Dead Sea, where it mixes with the salty and becomes a metaphor for all our lives.
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