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by Oliver Joseph
Bethlehem and Hebron were like second homes for me during the years I lived in Israel. I travelled there often with an educational charity called Encounter that took Jewish leaders and educators over the Green Line to meet with Palestinian community leaders and learn about the Occupation.
One hot summer’s afternoon we stopped with a group in a restaurant in the centre of the Palestinian side of Hebron. We had spent much of the morning traipsing the dusty streets of old Hebron, we had visited the Shuhada street market place on the Jewish side of the city, formerly the thriving Palestinian centre of Hebron now closed by military order for more than 20 years. The group was overwhelmed and with partial reluctance took their seats for food and presentations from local people.
At this point one of the more senior men from our Jewish group stood up and addressed the mixed Palestinian and Jewish group, he told us his family had been in Hebron during the 1929 massacre, during which more than sixty Jews were killed. He relayed that his family had been taken in by a Palestinian family and saved from the violence. He broke down in tears as he recalled that he would not be here today if it were not for the bravery and kindness shown to him by this family.
The story gave me a hope for the possibility of solidarity, care and protection that can be extended between peoples however disparate their lives might become.
This week’s Parsha is Hayyei Sara in which Abraham buys a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite in Hebron. He buys the plot in order to bury Sara his wife. The site of Sara’s burial is in the Cave of Machpelah which to this day is a holy site for Jews and Muslims alike. This site itself is wondrous where mosque directly adjoins synagogue, but alongside the symbolism of two faiths living one next door to another and offering worship in honour of our common foremothers and forefathers is the reality of generations of bloodshed and strife over this land and over this holy site.
Hebron is a microcosm of the protracted conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; it is a place that epitomises everything that is bad about the Occupation. It is a space which is devastating for the Palestinians who still own houses on a street which is a closed military zone and it is hard for the 18 year old soldiers who enforce the rulings of the Civil Administration, the Israel Army’s governing body in the West Bank.
Hebron and Hayyei Sara, our Torah portion are places in which notions of land, Torah and people collide. The collision of sense of ownership and belonging can have strong spiritual and emotional resonance and too the collision of identity with land, religion and people, can have devastating effect.
Many people in our community have spent extensive time living and working in Israel and most of us have family and parts of our lives that still reside there. An aspect of our story as a Jewish community who live in the UK is to work out our relationship with the Land of Israel, with our Judaism, Torah and within our own community. I offer this Shabbat when we meet together as a Shabbat when we can, with love and patience for one another and our differing perspectives, begin some of those conversations about the good, the bad and the ugly side of our relationship of the Land we call Israel.
The Secret of Machpela
by Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubinstein
This week’s parsha is Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” which begins in fact with the death of Sarah and her burial. When Abraham seeks a space to bury Sarah, he asks for מערת המכפלה – “the cave of Machpelah” that lies at the edge of the field of Ephron the Hittite. It’s not clear why he wanted this spot, so the mefarshim looked to the word מכפלה and tried to understand what it meant. Its root is כפל – meaning double.
There are many readings of this. Ibn Ezra offers that it’s: מערה בתוך מערה’ a cave within a cave. Is he talking about a second chamber? He’s a mystic, so maybe he’s saying there’s some essential depth, some spiritual innerness to this cave.
Ramban, offers a dvar acher, an alternative reading, and quotes Breisheet Rabbah, saying: שכפל הקב”ה קומתו של אדם הראשון, וקברו בתוכה: the Holy One doubled the size of Adam, the first man, and buried him in that cave. Adam was a doubly large human being, and was buried in a doubly large cave. Abraham knew that the cave had the remains of the first human being, and that’s why he wanted it as a burial site.
Maybe he just wanted the merit of having his kin buried in the same space as the humans who came out of Eden. Possibly. It’s a compelling reason. I’d like to expand on it: If the cave is Machpelah because Adam is in it, then the cave has universal significance. It is not just the family of Abraham that can claim connection to that place, for all of humanity is descended from Adam. I’d like to imagine that Abraham chose Adam’s burial place not to set himself apart from humanity, but in order to have reminder that whatever the role of the Jewish people is, however far apart we might feel from the rest of humanity, we are still very near to the dust of Adam, father of us all.
And yet I’d like to offer one last davar acher – and davar acher, I think, is one of the greatest tools of our mefarshim, the possibility, always, for one more interpretation and reinterpretation -: Machpelah, from ka-fal – doubled, is in contrast to חצי – half. The root of the word “mechitza.” There are mechitzas all over the Cave of Machpela today: the wall that divides Jews from Muslims, the smaller walls dividing men from women. It reminds me of this poem by Hafez, the great Sufi master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:
Once a group of thieves stole a rare diamond / Larger than a goose egg.
Its value could have easily bought / One thousand horses
And two thousand acres / Of the most fertile land in Shiraz.
The thieves got drunk that night / To celebrate their great haul,
But during the course of the evening / The effects of the liquor
And their mistrust of each other grew to such / An extent
They decided to divide the stone into pieces. / Of course then the Priceless became lost.
Most everyone is lousy at math / And does that to God
Today, the dominant story in the Cave of Machpelah is that it belongs to us. Yes, Muslims feel connected to it too, so they get their side of the mechitza. But on the weekend of Hayei Sarah, when the Hebron Fund raises money to support the Jewish Settlements there, when thousands of Jews will flock there to celebrate Jewish ownership of that place – the mosque will be closed. There will only be room for Jews there.
The secret of “Machpelah” is that it can be a place of abundance, a place of doubling and expansion. Perhaps that’s what Ibn Ezra meant when he said that it is מערה בתוך מערה. It can fit kaful – double –what one might expect – double the number of people. Double the narratives. If we remember the common dust of Adam that draws us all together, if we trust that we can fit in more than might appear at first glance, if we can take down the mechitzas, the divisions – perhaps it can again be Machpela.
The reading that it belongs to US is very evident in the text, and this reading is also valid. There are infinite dvarim acherim and we get to be in the conversation about what this text means and what it can mean. Which Torah are we teaching?