The trail was treacherous, the sun brutal, our water was finished, and one slip would mean plunging into the valley below. Were our reserves of emunah enough to propel us forward?
In my work as a personal injury lawyer in New York, I’ve dealt with many clients who have been seriously hurt while engaged in fun activities. Jumping on a trampoline, bicycling, playing ball, even bowling. But I never thought such a thing would happen to me.
I’m generally a cautious person, and my work with victims of injury has taught me to take even more precautions than the average person. For instance, when I cross the street at an intersection, I’m always on the lookout for cars turning left, as I know that most car accidents involving pedestrians happen when a driver who is turning left looks straight ahead to ensure that there are no oncoming cars, instead of looking left to ensure that there are no pedestrians in his way.
Along with practicing law, I write a blog called Emuna Daily (www.emunadaily.com). Back in 2008, after reading a sefer about emunah that I found life changing, I began emailing inspirational thoughts about emunah and related topics to some relatives and friends, as I felt that discussing these topics with others would reinforce to me their importance and help me internalize them. With time, these emails grew into a website from which I send out short daily posts to a few thousand followers, most of whom do not know me personally and might be surprised to learn that I am a lawyer by occupation.
A couple of years ago, I flew with my family to Eretz Yisrael to spend Yom Kippur and Succos with my sister and brother-in-law, Amy and Dov, who live in Efrat. Yom Kippur was on Wednesday, and the following Friday we went on a hike at Nachal Og, in the Judean Desert. I, my wife Rina, and our children Jaron (14), Keren (12), and Samara (8) were joined by Dov and his sons Uri (23), Dovid (21), and Gabi (19).
When I googled Nachal Og before the hike, I saw that it had received very high ratings. The comments suggested that it is a two- to two-and-a-half-hour hike, great for families, and appropriate for kids ages six and up. The only word of caution was that six-year-olds might need a little help with the ladder at the end, which consists of many rungs against the mountain. I saw a picture of the ladder, but I didn’t think it would pose any problem for Samara.
We each took a small bottle of water, in addition to the six 1.5-liter bottles we brought along for the nine of us, which we figured was more than enough for a two-and-a-half-hour hike, even considering that the trail was completely dry, with no natural sources of water. We left Efrat at about 10 a.m., planning to be back before 2 p.m., since Dov had a work call scheduled and we all needed time to get ready for Shabbos, which would come in at 6:20.
We got a little lost on the way, as Nachal Og is huge and the GPS wasn’t taking us to the place where the hike is supposed to begin. We pulled over in a parking lot at the side of a road, and when a police officer pulled up beside us, we asked him how to get to the Nachal Og hiking trail. He pointed us in the right direction, but added that it wasn’t the best day for hiking, since it was quite hot. (The temperature was supposed to reach the low 90s, about 33°C.) We didn’t think it was a problem, though, as it was still early in the day and not too hot, and we were planning to be out for only a couple of hours.
Several minutes later, we arrived at the correct parking lot, which was empty besides one other car. We saw a father with young kids get out of that car and head down the green trail, but Dov and the boys, who had done this hike many years earlier, said that last time they had started on the blue trail and then switched to the green trail, which creates a circle back to the parking lot. His Israeli cousins had sent him a map the night before that showed the blue trail turning into the green trail and ending back at the parking lot. So we followed the signs for the blue trail.
We started out at 10:50 a.m., walking uphill until we reached some nice areas, where we took lots of photos. We then got into the nachal itself, which was a beautiful valley, and we walked there for a long time. By now, the sun was scorching, and I was dripping wet. At 11:50, we decided to break for lunch, using some of our water to wash for bread. Samara, who at the time was refusing to drink the water, as she didn’t think it tasted good, kept falling behind with Rina, who was starting to feel weak. After taking a break, we decided that Dov, Jaron, Keren, and Gabi would go ahead, while I, Uri, and Dovid would walk slower with Rina and Samara.
By 1 p.m., we were really hot and pretty much out of water, but we weren’t worried because we figured the hike would end in a matter of minutes. There was only about an ounce of water left in one of the bottles, and I decided to conserve it, just in case.
After walking some more, Dovid decided to run ahead and see where the others were, as we hadn’t seen them in a long time and our cell phone service was very spotty. The rest of us continued walking, and about ten minutes later we noticed a highway bridge that was maybe 150 feet above our heads. Around that time, I suddenly received a bunch of emails, and I tried emailing Dov to ask him if he’d finished the hike yet, but the email wouldn’t send. That last email I received was at 1:59 p.m., and after that our phones had no service at all. I was able to access an offline map from Google Maps, though, and it showed that we were somewhere in the middle of Nachal Og and quite far from any highway, which was odd. But the map didn’t seem too accurate, and we figured that if we kept going, we’d get back to civilization soon enough.
Beneath the bridge was a cement wall that stood some five feet off the ground. Near the wall a green trail marker on a nearby rock indicated that we should climb over this wall, which seemed strange.
“Do you remember this being part of the hike?” we asked Uri.
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “I was here a long time ago, and I’ve been on lots of other hikes since then, so I can’t recall.”
Having nowhere else to go, we decided to scale the wall. Uri went up first, followed by me, and then I lifted Samara up and helped Rina.
A few minutes later, we took a much-needed break. Suddenly, we saw Dovid running back toward us holding a half-full 1.5-liter bottle of icy water. He explained that when he had gone ahead to look for the others, he had passed a Bedouin Arab and asked if he had seen other hikers. The Bedouin, who did not speak English or Hebrew, indicated that they were ahead, and Dovid hurried to catch up with them. When he informed them that we were about 15 minutes behind, they said they would keep going, as the hike was probably just about to end. Dovid then hurried back to join us, and when he passed the Bedouin again, he decided to ask him if he had any water, as he was really thirsty.
The Bedouin, who was standing beside a donkey, pulled up a blanket and took out a bottle of frozen water along with an empty bottle. He then poured half the water from the bottle into the empty one and gave Dovid the half-full bottle of beautiful ice water. Dovid wanted to pay him, but he refused, so Dovid thanked him and ran back to us to share the water. This came at exactly the right moment, as we all badly needed to drink — especially Rina, who was not doing well at all, but felt a bit better after swallowing some water. Samara was no longer complaining that the water didn’t taste good.
We continued along the green trail — and then, suddenly, it ended. The valley became very narrow, and a pile of fallen boulders blocked our path. We were all perplexed, and I was afraid that the boulders had fallen right before we arrived, as we didn’t see the group ahead of us, and I couldn’t imagine where they were. This was the first time I felt really worried. Where were we supposed to go?
Then, we looked up and saw a green marker, which seemed to indicate that we were supposed to scale the side of the cliff and navigate either around or underneath a huge boulder that seemed to be hovering about 18 inches off the surface of the path. There was a major drop to the left, which made such a maneuver extremely dangerous. We stood there for a while, having a hard time imagining that we were actually supposed to get around this boulder on the side of the cliff with no ropes, helmets, or safety equipment, but we realized that Jaron, Gabi, Dov, and Keren must have done exactly that, because they were nowhere in sight. If they had traversed this impasse, we would, too.
By now, we had been hiking for three hours, and we had almost no water left, so turning around and heading back was hardly possible. Also, with no cell phone reception, I knew that if the other members of our group were to come back to look for us, they would not find us for hours if we were walking in the other direction.
Dovid decided to go up first. It was nerve-racking to watch him scale the cliff, but he made it up safely, and we had no choice but to follow him. I went next, with Samara right behind me as I crawled on my arms and legs under the boulder and up the mountainside. When we were all standing safely at the top of the cliff, Dovid informed us that there was now some sort of a ladder going down that was not going to be easy to navigate, as it had only two rungs that were spread far apart, with a drop of 30 or 40 feet right below. We would have to climb down the mountain in a sitting position until we reached the first rung and then twist to face the mountain in order to get to the second rung, which was several feet to the left of the first and much lower down. This would be challenging even for an adult; how could Samara do this without falling off?
We were all thinking that this must be the final part of the hike, which we knew ended with a ladder, although these two rungs did not look at all like the ladder I had seen in the picture. Figuring out how to do this with Samara, and without falling off, was a major challenge. We somehow managed to get down, but much to our chagrin, the trail just continued.
We soon found ourselves hiking on paths as narrow as the width of a typical folding chair in many areas, with a 300-foot drop on one side and an almost vertical mountain slope on the other. It was now about 3 p.m., and the sun was brutal. By now we had finished the Bedouin’s water and had only that sports bottle with an ounce of water left. Our mouths were all dry, so I squeezed a few drops of water into each person’s mouth to just wet our tongues. As we continued to make our way across the side of the mountain, I kept telling Samara and everyone else to hug the mountain and walk sideways. Occasionally, I’d glance down to the bottom of the valley, hoping that I would not see anyone who had fallen.
Each time the trail turned, we hoped that we were at the end, but no such luck. Dovid was leading us, and each time he turned another corner, disappointment registered on his face anew. Still, Uri and I kept telling Samara that the parking lot must be very close. I remember thinking that if not for her, I would have been focused on Rina, but we didn’t have that luxury.
Now the path was leading us down the mountain, which didn’t really make sense, as we thought we should be heading toward the top of the mountain, where the parking lot was. Still, when we reached the bottom, we assumed we were just about at the end of the trail, but then we noticed, to our dismay, that the trail was leading us back up the side of the mountain. By now, it was clear that this trail was not meant for families; it could only have been intended for professional adult hikers with full safety gear. Other than the Bedouin, we did not see another hiker on the trail all day.
We knew we were on the wrong trail, but we were confident that even if this was a longer, more difficult trail, it had to end soon. So we kept going.
By 5 p.m. we were all feeling light-headed. Earlier, I had been screaming for help, but at this point, I could hardly speak. We took a break on a rock a few feet from the cliff, which was as safe a spot as we could find, but far from safe, as we were hundreds of feet up the mountain, and one wrong move could have spelled disaster. One of the problems with the trail was that there were loose rocks that slipped downward into the valley as we stepped on them. Had anyone slipped, they could have plunged down into the valley below, with nothing to stop their fall. After car accidents, the most common injuries I deal with in my law practice are slips and falls — which can happen even on much firmer terrain, let alone on unsteady mountain precipices. But I refused to allow my mind to dwell on the very real possibility of falling.
Again, I checked my phone for service, but there was none. I also checked the offline Google Map to see where we were now in relation to where we were earlier and was dismayed to see that we were even further out from where we thought we were headed. There seemed to be no highway or civilization for miles. I then looked up and saw Rina navigating the mountain ledge and decided to snap two quick photos.
“You really want to remember this, Jeremy?” she asked.
I remember at that point feeling bad for having taken the photos, and started to wonder whether we would ever get out of there.
I was going to suggest that we say Tehillim, but I didn’t want anyone to panic, so instead, I decided to say a brachah over the few drops of water I had left so that everyone could say Amen. In the course of writing my blog, I had come across a story about a sick person who was advised to say brachos aloud so that every time someone would say Amen to his brachos, it would create a malach to protect him. So I said a fervent shehakol and everyone said Amen.
Rina, in the meantime, was whispering tefillos, and the rest of us were all quietly talking to Hashem and asking Him for help.
It was now 5:30 p.m., less than an hour to candlelighting. The sun was starting to go down, and although we were relieved to feel the heat breaking, the thought of getting stuck on the mountain in the dark, and on Shabbos, was terrifying.
Dovid started to go ahead of us, and from a distance he called to us that his nose was bleeding — a clear sign of dehydration. He continued to travel a few hundred feet ahead. (Later he told us that the reason he went ahead was that his hands were shaking and he was too nervous to assist with Samara, and he didn’t want to freak us out.) I could hardly talk at this point, but tried to stay positive and not succumb to fear. Navigating these narrow cliffs brought new meaning to the famous words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid.”
Uri, who seemed totally calm, kept telling Samara that the parking lot was very close. She was holding up remarkably well and expressed concern for the group ahead, echoing the mounting concern that I was feeling. Where were they? Were they okay? I was particularly concerned that Jaron and Keren, being kids, might take the trail too fast and either lose their footing or overexert themselves and fall prey to heatstroke.
I couldn’t allow myself to dwell on these worries, though. We just had to keep going and stay focused on the trail.
“We’ll get you ices as soon as we get out,” I told Samara, but she said she just wanted water.
About 40 minutes later, with the sun rapidly descending, I was thinking where we could camp out once it got dark, as the mountain ledges were too narrow to sleep on.
Then, we heard Dovid, who was a few hundred feet ahead of us, saying something. At first, we thought he was talking to us, but then Uri said excitedly, “That sounds like my dad.” Suddenly, we heard Dovid yelling, “Help is on the way!” I then saw, from a distance, three fellows in orange on the top of the other side of the valley. I waved my arms all around and they waved back. I then yelled to Dovid asking about the others.
“I see my father, Gabi, Jaron, and Keren,” he yelled back. “They all look good.”
Words cannot describe the relief I felt upon seeing the rescue team and hearing that the others were all okay. A minute earlier, I didn’t know whether we were going to be stuck in the desert all night, whether we would survive, and whether everyone in the other group was okay. Then, all at once, we realized that everything was going to be fine. Tears sprang to my eyes.
Incredibly, the trail led us down to an open area where the other group was sitting. It was just about candlelighting time.
The rescue team greeted us with hugs and big bottles of water, which had never in my life looked so good. We were all feeling weak, but the other group had smiles on their faces and looked fine. Dov told me that my kids had been amazing — they took it seriously, looked worried when they should have been worried, but kept a positive attitude throughout. The reason they hadn’t waited for us was that they were sure we had stopped before that first dangerous cliff, and they were planning on getting help for us. They had no idea that the trail would go on for hours.
Jaron told me that he and his group were at their lowest at around 4 p.m., when they had been out of water for several hours already. They took a break and started screaming for help, when suddenly, an elderly Bedouin hobbled by, holding a cane in one hand and a large bottle of water in the other, and he offered the bottle to them.
“I couldn’t even stand up to get it,” Dov said, “so I asked him to bring it to me.”
The Bedouin brought them the water, which gave them the energy to stand up and forge ahead. In the meantime, the Bedouin disappeared — just as the other Bedouin with the donkey had vanished as soon as he had given us the bottle of ice water.
I don’t know if these Bedouins were angels in disguise, or maybe Eliyahu Hanavi, but I am positive that Hashem sent them to the right place at the right time with the bottles of water.
I then inquired how we had been rescued. Apparently, my sister Amy had realized something was wrong when Dov wasn’t back for his 2 p.m. call and she couldn’t get through to us. She called Dov’s brother, who immediately called the mayor and chief of staff in Efrat, who opened an investigation. Step one was to see if our cars were parked at Nachal Og; otherwise, they would have feared that we had never reached our destination and had fallen into the hands of our hostile neighbors. But they located our cars, which was a good sign. Step two was to send out a rescue team from all angles of the huge Nachal Og, along with drones.
Dov’s group actually saw the drones. Our group had heard buzzing at one point, but we assumed it was a swarm of bugs; now, we realized it had been a drone. For some reason, however, the drone did not see either group.
The rescue team had received a psak that they could drive back to Efrat on Shabbos with us. Once we felt a little better, they told us we still had to walk about 20 minutes to where their jeeps were. But before we got up to start walking, we wanted to daven Minchah, and that was some Minchah. Tears flowed from my eyes throughout Shemoneh Esreh, becoming especially intense when I reached modim.
Until we were rescued, we hadn’t allowed ourselves to dwell on the danger we were facing; we just had to keep moving ahead. But once it was over, and we no longer had to keep pushing ourselves forward, I shuddered to think of what could have happened to us, were it not for Hashem’s kindness: We could have plunged to our death at any point while on the mountain, especially once we felt weak and light-headed. We could have collapsed from dehydration or heatstroke. We could have gotten stuck on the mountain overnight and experienced the terror of not being able to see a thing or move a muscle, for fear of tumbling into the valley below.
At any moment, someone in the group could have panicked, making it impossible for us to focus on the trail. But during the entire seven hours of our ill-fated excursion, not a single member of our group succumbed to fear, even eight-year-old Samara.
“The essence of bitachon,” says the Chovos Halevavos, “is the tranquility of the one who trusts.”
During our ordeal, we were focused on survival; we couldn’t even stop to stay Tehillim, much less give each other pep talks about emunah and bitachon. But for me at least, having devoted time every day for over a decade to actively learning about emunah and bolstering my trust in Hashem, when I found myself staring danger in the face, I was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other and put aside all the worries and “what-ifs” — even though I see every day, in the course of my work, how easy it is for people to be injured while engaged in activities far less treacherous than scaling sheer mountain precipices.
Once free of the mountain’s clutches, I was able to see clearly how my efforts to strengthen my emunah, and share the gift of emunah with my family, had born fruit in a tangible way. We had been lost and disoriented, hot and thirsty, weak and exhausted, yet no one had cried; no one had balked at any of the death-defying maneuvers we’d had to make; no one had given up and said, “I can’t continue.”
Instead, we had all felt, both consciously and subconsciously, that Hashem was taking care of us, that everything was going to be fine, and that all we had to do was put one foot in front of the other. Rather than worrying about what would be, we stayed firmly planted in the moment, living the reality that Hashem had put us into rather than projecting ahead to what seemed then like a dubious future.
A year after our rescue, we returned to Nachal Og to make a seudas hodaah and finish the hike we were supposed to do. By then, a huge, heavy sign had been placed at the beginning of the trail, clearly differentiating between the easy family trail and the difficult expert trail (which, we learned, could take days to complete). In the past, flimsier signs had been put up to mark the two trails, but those had apparently been stolen by Bedouins for use as part of their shelters.
Since our harrowing hike at Nachal Og, I have heard of many others who got lost there, some of whom died. Fortunately for us, we managed to walk away unharmed, the only tangible souvenir of our experience being the two lifesaving bottles of water we received from the Bedouins. (We saved those bottles.)
I’m still practicing personal injury law, while learning Torah and writing my Emuna Daily blog. If my brush with death in Nachal Og taught me anything, it’s that emunah is something you have to work on before you find yourself out on a cliff.
To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 841)
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