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Why Sebastia?

A people without a story has lost the meaning of its existence.

Roman columns at Tel Sebastia. Photo by Ovedc via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman columns at Tel Sebastia. Photo by Ovedc via Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu
Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu

The State of Israel has made a historic decision to invest in restoring the Sebastia site. Sebastia is where the kings of Israel lived and ruled, a place that underwent numerous upheavals over the course of thousands of years. We are going to honor the kings of Israel and our own history.

Some may ask, “Why invest so many resources in archeology? Are there not more urgent needs related to our life here and now? Should we allow ourselves to deal with ‘the past’ so much?”

After security, education is the most important area of state investment. Education has many aspects, from the moral level and professional quality of the state’s citizens to shaping a shared story, which makes individuals into part of a larger and meaningful narrative.

Every state invests in educating its children on the foundations of justice, equality and freedom, but not every nation knows how to take it a step further: Weaving an overall story that is more than the welfare of individuals.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, we read about the founder’s desire that “the State of Israel … will be based on foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

If our story is only to be good or productive people, why do we need prophets at all? What really is “the vision of the prophets of Israel”?

Thus, what we call a “Jewish state” is not just a matter of ceremonies or shutting down the country on certain days. The vision of the prophets of Israel is the vision of a nation that lives on its land according to its faith and traditions. A country that illuminates the whole world and produces lofty creations that display to the world the heavenly greatness within it.

The vision of the prophets is the vision of a nation walking in the light of divine morality. It is the vision of a nation that is coping with difficulties and downturns, but shows time after time the deep and powerful forces of growth within it, explaining its ability to rise again from the dust.

When we turn to the past, it is not only archeological scientific curiosity that guides us.

We know that the past is our strength. It belongs to the genetic sequence that makes up the Jewish identity that amazes everyone. See what the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy said in his moving speech at the Knesset in Jerusalem: “Your rebirth is nothing less than a modern miracle, and thank you for it. The source of this miracle is the people of Israel. In those dark days when you were expelled from here, the Prophet Isaiah predicted a brighter future to come, and said: ‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come.’ My friends, today Israel’s light shines brighter than ever.”

There is light in Israel. It cannot be denied. Our job is to strengthen it. For the education of our children, for future generations and for all of humanity.

The government of Israel is allocating a sum of over 30 million shekels, with the participation of eight different government ministries, in order to restore the palace of King Ahab at Sebastia. It is the palace of the ancient government of Israel and sits on the mountain that Omri, King of Israel, bought from Shemer, for whom the site is named.

This place, which experienced the terrible siege of the King of Aram that ended in miraculous salvation, is in danger of destruction. There are those who seek to take the most ancient and fundamental foundations of the Hebrew Bible and erase them or appropriate them for an alternative, false narrative. They did not succeed in destroying the people of Israel in the furnaces of Auschwitz, but they are trying to destroy its story.

Take away the life story of a people and you have destroyed the meaning of its existence.

The story of the people of Israel is spread out among the hills of Judea and Samaria, overlooking the masses of Jews living on the coastal plain. The places steeped in ancient history teach us about the glory days of the people of Israel along with its low points. Our heritage tells a true story that the entire world stands before in astonishment. We have an obligation to future generations, as well as to the entire world, to deepen the story and to present it to the world in its full beauty and glory.

Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu is Israel’s Minister of Heritage.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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