(Photos: Jeff Zorabedian)
Ever wonder what it was like to grow up in Ur Kasdim?
I hadn’t either, until I came face to face with artifacts from the time of Avraham Avinu and realized for the first time that our great forefather was a real person, living in a real place, and faced with real challenges.
I am in New York City, in the vast halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, joining a tour led by Nachliel Selavan, an inspired teacher of Tanach, museum guide, history buff, and limudei kodesh rebbi.
This tour, titled “Age of Empires,” is one of several that Nachliel offers through his educational company, Torah InterMedia. The Met, with its mix of exhibits and artifacts, should be navigated with care by Torah-observant Jews, should they choose to visit. That’s where Selavan comes in. Nachliel takes care to avoid objectionable areas in the museum.
Today we’ll learn about the “neighborhood of the Tanach” and meet the Phoenicians (Tzidon), Assyrians (Ashur), and Babylonians (Bavel). The tour is crafted to help the curious understand the last chapters of Melachim II and parts of Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu through artifacts and archaeological evidence displayed in the museum. What were the dilemmas of the last kings of Israel? Why did they rebel against the mighty Assyrian Empire and choose to ally with Egypt? The tour comes to a sad end with a view of selected artifacts from Babylon that stand as a living testament to our descent into exile. By the end of the tour, we will have covered only a few hundred yards of this vast museum, but more than 2,000 years of Jewish history.
Face to Face with History
Nachliel hands out a source sheet that includes pesukim and mefarshim from Yirmiyahu, Yeshayahu, Melachim and Tehillim, along with a color-coded timeline that illustrates the history of the Churban Bayis Rishon. Armed and ready, we start out facing a large map of the ancient Near East, which includes Avraham’s birthplace, Ur Kasdim.
Nachliel describes the general neighborhood, the land, its waterways and tributaries. I easily recognize names of famous neighboring cities — Haran, Bavel, Ninveh, and Shushan. Seeing the wall-sized map, I understand now why this was called the Fertile Crescent and why the region is referred to as the “cradle of civilization”: The Euphrates and Tigris rivers were the water sources for the establishment of agriculture. Farming, in turn, provided people with enough free time to focus on things beyond their daily existence, activities like metallurgy, the mining of gemstones, and the design of instruments.
Nachliel directs us to our source page and quotes pesukim from Bereishis describing how the children and grandchildren of Kayin populated the land and “engaged in shepherding,” made implements “of copper and iron,” and played musical instruments like “the lyre and the pipe.”
Nearby is a display of ancient stamps and bullas, or stamped clay seals, written in cuneiform, an early form of writing used for commerce and record keeping. These complex and intricately carved stamps were used as signatures for commercial correspondence. We also visit a display of beautiful jewelry made of gold and lapis lazuli, a stone of deep blue color. These items were painstakingly wrought in ancient times, but one could easily imagine seeing them in a contemporary luxury retail store. We tend to think of the time of the Torah as simplistic, but these articles attest that ancient civilizations were complex and accomplished.
I realize for the first time that the details surrounding the lives of our Avos are more than a dry narrative or a stroll through some glass showcases. Avraham Avinu lived in what was the center of the most civilized society then on earth. And Hashem commanded him to pick up and leave. Nachliel’s knowledge, delivery, and familiarity with the museum have already worked their magic. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 738)
Oops! We could not locate your form.