The Negev wind knifed its way through the open flaps of Avraham's tent in Beersheva. Although sand swirled everywhere, its tiny particles stinging his face and hands, Avraham refused to close his tent to travelers who might need hospitality. Always vigilant, he beckoned passing nomads to stop inside for food and drink. In return, he asked only one thing-that his guests say a berakhah and bless God for the food they received.
Today, the dry Negev wind still kicks up particles of sand that sting when they strike bare flesh. The Negev wilderness, plagued by drought and haunted by the shadow of death, remains as bleak as Jeremiah described it centuries ago, "A land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness" (Jeremiah 2:6).
Last May, when their bus drove into the wilderness and dropped them off, a dozen eighth-grade students from the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Bloomfield, Connecticut, gasped audibly. The hot sun and bleak terrain seemed endless. Suddenly, a man approached. "I am Shivi," he said, sitting down to tell them about life in the Negev, and how to survive in the wilderness. After a time, Shivi guided them to a tiny village where a tent stood with its flaps open wide. The kids were welcomed with shade, a place to rest, and cool water. After baking pita bread, they ate it with hummus and schwarma-roasted meat. When they finished, they blessed God for the food.
"It was unforgettable," said 13-year-old Brian Zublotsky. "Avraham lived right here, just like this. The Torah has never been as real to me as it is now." Sharone Small agreed: "This is our heritage," she said. "Here, the stories come alive."
Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, plotted war against Jerusalem. But Hezekiah, King of Judah, said, "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?" (II Chronicles 32:2-4). In a stroke of military daring, Hezekiah sealed the source of the springs, which lay outside the city walls. As his enemy gathered forces, Hezekiah organized two teams of diggers to carve a tunnel that would carry water from its now hidden source into the city. One team began digging inside the city walls and tunneled outward, while the other team started outside and dug toward Jerusalem. When they met in the middle, the teams rejoiced and scrawled this inscription in the stone: "And on the day of the tunneling through, the workmen struck, each in the direction of his fellow, pick against pick. And the water started flowing from the source to the pool, 1,200 cubits[1,750 feet]. And the height of the rock above the head of the workmen was 100 cubits."
The Sigel students listened attentively to this story in the Tanakh, and then descended into the narrow, underground passage. It was cold, wet, and dark, and they clung to their flashlights as they waded through the water. Never again would the Biblical account of Hezekiah's tunnel sound distant to their ears, because on this spring day, they touched the scratches in the tunnel walls and felt the cold, clammy air against their faces.
"By seeing the tunnel, I lived a part of the story," said Nathan Young. "I was connected to that part of the Torah."
The Sigel kids spent 12 days exploring Israel, but they experienced two millennia of Jewish history. They boated in the Jordan River, which split like the Red Sea when the Israelites crossed it and settled in Eretz Yisrael. They climbed Masada, the ancient fortress that towers above the Dead Sea, where 960 Jews made their last stand against Roman tyranny. They prayed at the Kotel, the sole remnant of our holy Temple in Jerusalem. They swam in Lake Kinneret, near Tiberias, where our ancient sages compiled the Mishnah. They walked the winding streets of Tzefat, where Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz wrote the kabbalistic hymn "Lekhah Dodi"; and they stood at Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Ben-Gurion pointed the way for modern Israel.
"For me, this trip put me back there, in Torah times," said Tamar Feigenbaum. "I felt as though it was happening to me." Gavriella Fried agreed: "Just seeing this bit of history gave me a connection to the Torah I've never experienced," she said. "Our ancestors lived, ate, cooked, and slept just like we do. Now I've seen it for myself."