The Dead and the Living in Hebron

For millennia, we Jews have been burying our dead outside the city limits, in caves, in fields and on hillsides. Just recently, for example, I stood with a crowd of people in a field, waiting to bury a friend, cousin, classmate, brother, son. Together we, the living, placed one of our own into the earth. When we bury our loved ones we put up reminders of those we have painfully buried. We go to visit these places and leave a stone for presence. We whisper words to our beloved ones. We give honor, we pay homage. And then we wash our hands and we go home. As livers of life, we must return to living.

Not so in Hebron. In Hebron, an ancient burial site has become the center of town. My partner Benj and I recently lived in Jerusalem for two very full years, and during that time, I traveled many times to Hebron. I want to share with you some thoughts on the city as it is today, as I encountered it, in dialogue with this week’s parasha, Hayei Sarah.

We read in this parasha that Abraham, bereaved over the loss Sarah, his wife of more than a hundred years, came to Hebron to mourn her and look for an ahuzat kever, a burial place. After identifying himself to the residents of the town as a ger toshav, a resident alien dependent on the good will of the local citizenry, Abraham asked the people to bring him to Ephron, saying that he hoped he could buy the cave at the edge of Ephron’s field at full price. Ephron offered Abraham the whole field and the cave, calling on the townspeople to witness the gift. Ephron wanted to be generous and often the sojourner a gift but Abraham insisted on the clarity of a purchase. Abraham, however, insisted that he needed to pay for the cave: he did not want there to be any ambiguity about his intentions or the ethics of the sale, nor to depend on another’s generosity. Hearing the price, Abraham weighed out the money in earshot of the whole town and buried Sarah there in the cave.

Abraham’s purchase of the cave, ma’arat ha-machpela, is of profound significance in the Jewish tradition. According to Midrash, Abraham later called it the opening to the Garden of Eden. Though Torah is famously terse on most matters, the story is retold twice more in Genesis as Jacob prepares to be buried in the cave. This cave becomes the spot where the avot and imahot (patriarchs and matriarchs) are gathered to their kin. After Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and Leah are all buried there in ma’arat hamachpela, the cave is sealed. The field became a monument rather than a working cemetery and over the millennia a city grew up around the site.

Hebron is now a city of 130,000, about the size of New Haven. At its historic center, nestled into a maze of homes that date back to the middle ages, is the Herodian building that marks the spot of ma’arat ha-machpela.

The burial place has become the center of town.

For Jews, there are four holy cities: Jerusalem, of course, and Tzfat, Tiberias, and Hebron. All four were major Jewish population centers long before Zionist immigration to Palestine began in the 1880s. All four are also home to the burial places of sages.

The Torah describes three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem, times to bring offerings and celebrate as a nation and a community. There is now a fourth Jewish pilgrimage festival. On the Shabbat of parashat Hayei Sarah, 30,000 Jews from around the world will go to Hebron, commemorating not the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of the Torah on Sinai, but Abraham’s purchase of the cave and the field. A burial plot is, again, at the center.

Posters advertising the pilgrimage make an unusual claim: they say:
ממשיכים בקנין הארץ בדרכו של אברהם אבינו
“We continue to acquire the land the way our father Abraham did.” The poster is not exactly correct.

During my many trips to Hebron, I was shocked by what I saw. The streets of the old city are eerily quiet. The blue-green gates of shops are soldered shut, the matching awnings rusting away. Graffiti is everywhere, stars of David are sprayed on walls and doorways, and “death to the Arabs” and “we will triumph” are more common than street signs. Looking up, I saw balconies fenced in with sturdy wire, Palestinian Arab residents peering out their windows to see the visitors on the street. I learned that the wire is there to protect the Palestinian residents from violence by Jewish settlers.

I learned about how property is often acquired in Hebron today, in the name of Abraham our Patriarch: small Jewish children are sent to break into the closed Palestinian shops at night, looting the merchandise and preparing the ground for others to return; once a place is lived in, evicting the new Jewish residents is a difficult task. I heard a story from an Israeli soldier on patrol about a little girl who put a rock in her baby brother’s hand and told him to throw it at an old Palestinian woman passing by in the street. When the soldier confronted the children, asking why she would throw stones at such an old woman, the little girl answered: “Who knows what she might have done to the Jews!”

In the name of maintaining presence in the holy city of Hebron, some Jews are teaching their children violence and hatred. A tomb is at the center and we have forgotten everything else.

Abraham acquired the cave respectfully, in the light of day, in ear-shot of the local marketplace. To acquire property by theft and violence under cover of darkness is not Abraham’s way.

The claim of the pilgrimage is a false claim. If we Jews are to make pilgrimage to Hebron, during the Shabbat of Hayei Sarah or at any other time of year, it must be with a sense of deep connection to the values that anchor our tradition in the city: reverence for an ancient holy site and honor to the dead, yes, and respect for those who live around the burial place.

We must not put a burial site at our center if it means that we forget about the living. The Talmud teaches that when a funeral procession and a wedding party meet at a crossroads, the wedding party has the right-of-way and the funeral yields. We pay the greatest honor to the dead by holding fast to the sanctity of the living.

At the end of Parashat Hayei Sarah, Abraham also dies. We get the cryptic report that his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury him together. We can imagine the kind of conversation that might have taken place over their father, one son angry at a father who would have sacrificed him for God, the other alienated by a father who abandoned him to the desert. After they put down their spades, we learn that Isaac returned not to his home, but to Be’er le-hai ro’i, home of Ishmael and his mother Hagar. That conversation in Hebron over shared loss and grief somehow brought the two, terribly distant, close again. Close enough that they wanted to continue the conversation.

This week’s parasha is thus framed by the deaths of Sarah and Abraham, the central figures of the Torah thus far. This is a moment of terrible loss. It would be easy to get stuck trying to imagine how the tradition might go forward with its founders gone. But the parasha, even grappling with the rawness of this loss, is called hayei Sarah, the life of Sarah. It demands that we put life at the center. In Hayei Sarah, the burial site itself offers Abraham’s sons the possibility of transformative meeting. Death cannot stay at the center.

As I think back on our two years in Jerusalem, I remember clearly one summer evening: I sat at the top of a hill in Hebron, overlooking the old city. A group of friends, Palestinian residents of Hebron together with Jewish and Israeli friends from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, gathered for a barbeque. The group spoke in an energetic mixture of Hebrew, Arabic and English and laughed over the smell of shishkabab. This pilgrimage put life at the center.

As I sat there I imagined: Could a life force of mutual respect built on Abraham’s model be the defining force of the city? Could Hebron be a place where we, together, bury the dead, and then return, as the living, to life?
It’ll be a long road towards this vision. Moreover, I know that there are people on both sides making it their business to be sure we never get there. I share with you this image of friends around a fire not from a naïve sense that sitting together will solve one of the toughest political issues of our age, but with a sense of obligation to envision the kinds of future we might hope for. A place like Hebron, so close to the heart of our tradition, tugs on our deepest fears, our hopes, anger and our joys.

This Dvar Torah is being published in partnership with Project Hayei Sarah, a network of emerging Jewish leaders supporting each other to educate their communities about the situation in Hebron using the lens of Torah and personal experience.