Thursday, October 28, 2010

Planting the seeds of a people

This week Hebron’s Jewish Community received an unusually large number of greetings. Specifically, 14 ministers, five deputy ministers, and 24 MKs from both the coalition and the opposition (3 from Kadima), including Knesset speaker Ruby Rivlin, sent special messages of support to Hebron.  This, as part of an annual celebration,  as we read the weekly Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, in which Abraham purchases Ma’arat HaMachpela, the caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, almost 4,000 years ago.
Not only are politicians participating. Usually somewhere between 15 – 20,000 people arrive in Hebron and Kiryat Arba to join in the festivities. Several hundred Jews, mostly from the US, arrive in Israel especially for this special Shabbat in Hebron. Youth and adults, with knitted kippas and black kippas,  some in suits, some with shtreimal fur hats, rabbis, laymen, pour into Hebron beginning early Friday afternoon. Tents are pitched outside Machpela on the garden lawn and across the street in a park. Others find a patch of floor at the entrance to a building and set there their sleeping bags. It is the only time of the only time of the year, when receiving a phone call requesting to stay with me, and I answer, ‘we still have some floor space available,’ the response is a resounding ‘great!’
One year I recall a young woman approached my wife in the kitchen Saturday night, and thanked her. My wife asked her, ‘for what.’ She answered, ‘oh, I slept here.’ To this day, we have no idea where she slept because the house was full without her.
Shabbat evening thousands fill the 2,000 year old structure atop the caves of Machpela and thousands more worship outside in the Machpela courtyard. Some pray very traditionally, while others sing and dance to tunes of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  The atmosphere is both holy and joyful simultaneously.
Shabbat morning the Isaac Hall, opened to Jewish worshipers only ten days a year, is packed to the brim, with some having to stand for a lack of chairs. Here the ancient words are chanted from a Torah scroll, written by hand on parchment, reciting the purchase of the caves and the field by Abraham for some 400 silver shekels, thousands of years ago. It should be noted that according to recent studies, four hundred shekels in the time of Abraham is worth about $700,000 today.
The day continues with meals, lectures, discussion groups, tours of the Jewish neighborhoods, rest and Shabbat song, a wonderful way to commemorate this unique event.
The basic question that must be addressed though, is why? Why was it special then, and why is it special today? Why should so many thousands of people arrive in Hebron to recall what happened almost four millennium ago?
Let’s start at the beginning.  Abraham paid a small fortune for a commodity he could have had for free. Efron the Hittite offered to give him the caves gratis. But Abraham refused. Years earlier, according to accounts in the holy Zohar and other sacred literature, Abraham had discovered in these very caves the tombs of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. Here was the entrance to Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Realizing how holy the site was, Abraham knew the only way to ensure his continued possession of it was to sign a contract and put money down on the table in front of witnesses, thereby preventing any counter claim as to the ownership of the place. And so he did just that, at an extremely high cost.
Our sages taught, some 2,000 years ago, that there are three places the nations will never be able to say we Jews stole, as it is written in the Bible that we paid money for them: Joseph’s tomb, Temple Mount, and Ma’arat HaMachpela. And today, what are the three ‘most controversial places in Israel?
Just as it was special then, so too today. The site has not lost any of its sanctity or allure. To the contrary. It must be remembered that Jews (and Christians) were prevented from entering  Machpela for 700 year, following the Mameluk expulsion of the Crusaders in 1260, until the return to, and liberation of Hebron in 1967.
Why today do some half a million people visit Machpela annually, with 50,000 during the Succot holidays and this Shabbat some 20,000?
People understand that Hebron and Ma’arat HaMachpela are the roots of the Jewish people, the commencement of monotheism, the beginnings of humanity.  Roots must be watered, to prevent them from drying up. Tens and hundreds of thousands of people visiting, identifying with and worshiping at Machpela is a figurative irrigation of these roots, allowing Jews and other believers around the world to soak up spiritual nutrition, so necessary for our being, both individually and collectively, and as people, as a nation. 
In reality the wonder of Hebron, of Machpela, and on a larger scale, of all of Eretz Yisrael, is not what was. The amazing facet of Machpela is not that Abraham purchased it 4,000 years ago, rather it is that we are still here today, at that same exact place. How many peoples can say, ‘here we began, thousands of years ago, and here we remain today, not as a memory, but as a living, thriving organism, keeping our past alive in the present?’ I daresay, no one, excepting the Jews, here in Hebron, Jerusalem and throughout Israel.
Hebron is the beginning, the roots of the roots. We know what occurs to a tree should its roots be chopped off.  In 1929 we lost Hebron. In 1948 we lost Jerusalem. In June, 1967 we returned to Jerusalem and the next day, returned to Hebron.  Hebron and Jerusalem, our heart, our soul, our roots. Our past, our present and our future. This is why our holy city lives on and will continue to live on. This is why so so many people arrive to celebrate the planting of the seeds of our people in the field of Machpela, in Hebron.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The fourth leg

Tishrei 23, 5771, 10/1/2010
The fourth leg 

Jews celebrate three major holidays annually: Passover, Shavuot, and Succot. These three festive occasions celebrate our exodus from Egypt, receiving of the Torah, and the Divine presence watching over us for forty years in the desert.  These special times could be figuratively compared to a necessary injection, provided three times yearly, for a certain medical issue. In this case these shots are not required for any physical ailment. Rather they are as intravenous inoculations filled with a unique serum, that being emunah, otherwise known in English as faith.
From the very beginning Jews have had to deal with major trials and tribulations. Even before we were officially a ‘people.’ Let’s take, for example, the founder, the first Jew, Abraham. Our sages teach that Abraham was tested ten times by G-d, including what would seem to be the ultimate trial, that being the command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. 
It must be kept in mind that Abraham had been working quite strenuously for decades to convince those around him to abandon not only idol worship, but also such horrific practices as human sacrifice. In addition, he believed that the future, not his personal future, but that of his belief in one G-d, rested with Isaac. Removing his son from the pages of history represented a direct contradiction to all had taught, and seemingly would bring to an abrupt end the Abrahamic covenant. 
Yet Abraham realized that what he believed to be ‘right’ was secondary when compared to a divine decree. He therefore willingly obeyed the Creator’s orders. That very act, his ability to lift a knife to take his son’s life, instilled in Jews from then, through this very day, the trait of ‘mesirut nefesh.’ That is, such total dedication and devotion to HaShem allowing people to be ready for the ‘supreme sacrife,’ in other words, giving our lives for our people, our land, our Torah.
Yet it has been written that Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, was not Abraham’s most difficult ordeal. Rather, the tenth and most complex test of Abraham’s faith was the purchase of the Caves of Machpela, to bury his beloved wife Sarah.  Why so?
Abraham and Sarah had known each other all their lives. They were married for many many decades. Their lives were totally entwined, as one. They were perhaps a paradigm of the ideal couple with unbounded faith in one G-d. Sarah died immediately following the above-mentioned story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, which must also have been extremely stressful. Despite his rock-solid trust in G-d, Abraham must still have been left a bit dazed. And then he receives word that Sarah is dead in Hebron.
Abraham hurries back to plan her burial and seeks out Efron the Hittite in order to purchase the field and adjacent caves of Machpela. The negotiations are complex, and conclude with a demand for four hundred silver shekels, which today is in the vicinity of seven hundred thousand dollars.  How did Abraham, following the Akedah and the death of Sarah, have the peace of mind to successfully conclude this deal? He could have accepted the caves for free, but declined, knowing that possession requires purchase; a signed contract, payment, and witnesses. He could have passed up the caves, interring Sarah elsewhere. But Abraham held his own, refusing to compromise the principals he himself defined, and finished the acquisition.
Why? Because he knew the value of this so sacred a site, the original burial place of Adam and Eve, the entrance to the Garden of Eden, the doorway to paradise.
Here too, Abraham instilled within the Jewish people an eternal element of faith, lasting to this very day;  a devotion beginning with Hebron, but spreading far and wide, leading through Jerusalem and all Eretz Yisrael.
What trials and tribulations have Jews not faced while trying live in our land? We have been exiled and murdered. Our holy places were declared ‘off-limits.’ A mosque was built on Temple Mount, site of Beit HaMikdash, the holy Temple. Jews were prevented from entering Ma’arat HaMachpela for seven centuries.  And only a few years ago Joseph’s tomb was abandoned and destroyed.
Yet we are not a people to give up.  We never lost hope, never said never, and notwithstanding the tremendous hardships, arrive back home and declared a state. Hebron is an excellent example.  Following the 1929 riots and massacre who ever believed that Jews could ever again live in Hebron? But home we came. Following the Hebron Accords, when eighty percent of the city was transferred to Arafat and the PA, who expected Jews to remain in this ancient city? But we stayed. When the second intifada, which I call the ‘Olso War’ began on the eve of Rosh HaShana in the year 2000, and snipers shot from the surrounding hills into the Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron for two and a half years, who could have imagined that the community would continue to not only exist, but thrive? But thrive we did. And continue doing so at the present.
This past week of Succot well over 50,000 Jews visited Hebron. This isn’t the first time such huge numbers of people throng to Hebron. Almost every holiday season, Passover and Succot, tens of thousands worship at Machpela and walk through the streets to the various Jewish neighborhoods: Tel Hebron, Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano-Yeshivat Shavei Hevron and the Avraham Avinu quarter. This is Am Yisrael, remembering our past and looking to our future.
The three annual holidays, Passover, Shavuot and Succot, are called, in Hebrew, ‘Regalim’ which literally means ‘legs.’ Yet a table cannot rest on three legs, it would be much too shaky and fall. So, what is the ‘fourth regel’ the fourth ‘leg’ on which we rest? Clearly the fourth leg is the Jewish people, a nation imbued with a faith which commenced at the very beginning of our existence, starting with the first Jew, the first believer, Abraham.  These are our four ‘legs,’ the stability of our existence, and the insurance of our eternity, in our land, forever.