It was a bit of heaven. Now it’s a chunk of hell.
In the wilderness where the Hebrews received the Law, Muslim extremists are now killing one another. And in Israel, hands are wringing and hearts are breaking.
In a grisly, familiar pattern, some 30 armed men entered the Sufi Al-Rawdah mosque in northern Sinai on Nov. 24, mechanically firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades into innocent worshipers of the mystic Islamic sect. More than 300 people were killed, including 27 children.
As tragic as this was, it’s long been typical in the once-sacred desert of Moses. ISIS has broken the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Since 1979, when Israel dutifully returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, the striking ridges and shady passes of the western Negev Desert remained an alluring gateway to the region’s pristine beaches.
For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful.
Israel took control of the Sinai in 1967 after the Six-Day War and then fell in love with the peninsula, turning it into an internationally revered haven of exploration and ecology. The Israelis built national parks, enriched dry riverbeds and cultivated osprey eggs so that birds — rather than missiles — could fly.
For some time, but especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful. The jagged landscape of reddish, biblical mountains casts long shadows and has grown very ominous. Where tourists, cartographers and mountain climbers once gathered, hyperintensive, bloody, fatwa-driven terrorist wars are turning the sacred sands bloody and gruesome.
As one who has visited and traveled extensively in the Sinai desert, I can attest to its awesome beauty, environmental fragility and the loving care Israel once provided. Egypt’s interest in Sinai’s coral reefs, wadis and mountain ranges has little to do with maintaining the region’s natural balance.
It’s undeniable that both nations have dealt with the Sinai first in terms of geopolitical strategy, but Israel went much further. The Jewish state was never the host nation for sectarian terror conflicts that have scattered the peaceful Bedouins and stained the sands of time. Israel loved the Sinai. I hiked, camped and broke bread there with the savvy and hospitable Bedouins who now live in fear and terror.
Like an unabashed foster parent, Israel cared for the crystal waters of Aqaba, maintained the organic equilibrium of the desert birds and fish, and explored and studied the remarkable wilderness canyons.
When I reached the crest of Mount Sinai in 1979 to perform bat mitzvah ceremonies for two American girls, I saw the sun rise over a terrestrial glory that resonated with both spiritual and physical transcendence. The Egyptians had risked its desert child four times with war; the Israelis had turned it to peace. Similarly, the place where Israel left behind greenhouses and schools in Gaza is now a Hamas missile launching pad.
If people of the world would learn more about Israel’s poignant connection to the land, they would at long last have a healthy insight into Israel’s real sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the tragic Islamic Winter has consumed the vanished Arab Spring and made bitter the winds of Sinai.
Rabbi Ben Kamin is the author of “I Don’t Know What to Believe: Making Spiritual Peace With Your Religion” and other books.