Last week we celebrated not only Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. We also marked the return to Hebron, 41 years ago, during the 1967 Six Day War. It’s no coincidence that these two festive days come one after the other.
Hebron and Jerusalem have been connected for thousands of years. The Kingdom of Israel was initiated by King David in Hebron over 3,000 years ago. David lived in Hebron for seven and a half years, immersed in the spirit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, before moving up to Jerusalem, establishing it as the eternal capital of the Jewish People.
Later we read in the Talmud that every day, early in the morning, a Cohen would ask, prior to beginning the day’s work, ‘has the sun yet risen, even as far east as Hebron?’ If the answer was ‘Barkai,’ yes, then work could commence. If the response was negative, they would have to wait. Why was Hebron so much a part of work at Beit HaMikdash? It was in order to awaken ‘Zechut Avot,’ the merit of the Forefathers.
In other words, if it was dark in Hebron, it was still considered to be dark in Jerusalem. If there was light in Hebron, there was light in Jerusalem. This has more than just a literal meaning. In 1929, following the riots and massacre, Hebron’s surviving Jews were expelled from their homes. The few Jews who were able to return in 1931 were again expelled in 1936. Twelve years later Jerusalem fell, and just as Ma’arat HaMachpela was off-limits, so too was Temple Mount.
On the 28th of Iyar in 1967 we returned to Jerusalem. It was only logical that the next day the Jewish people would return to the first Jewish city in Israel, Hebron. Finally, after a 700-year exile, Jews could again worship at the second holiest site to the Jewish people in the entire world, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Ma’arat HaMachpela, in Hebron.
The magnificent building atop the caves of Machpela was constructed by Herod, King of Judea, some 2,000 years ago. It is the only 2,000-year-old building in the world which still exists in its entirety and is still used for the identical purposes for which it was built − to pray at the entrance to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, at the site of the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Lea.
Entrance to Jews was declared off-limits by a Marmaluke emperor named Bibers, who a short time earlier had also closed off Temple Mount to anyone and everyone not Muslim. The closing of Ma’arat HaMachpela was, it seems, an afterthought, which continued for 700 years. Presently our Muslim neighbors tell us that should they again ever control this holy site, no one not Muslim will be able to worship there because “it is a mosque and only Muslims and pray in a Mosque” − this, despite the fact that the building was built by Herod about 600 years before Mohammed was born. When asked why Jews live today in Hebron, one of the central reasons is, of course, Ma’arat HaMachpela. It is crystal clear that only a Jewish community in Hebron preserves Jewish access to this site. If, G-d forbid, there weren’t any Jews in Hebron, Jews would have no access to Ma’arat HaMachpela.
Many times I’m asked how we can celebrate, with the many issues that cloud our presence in Hebron. Over half a million people visit Ma’arat HaMachpela annually. This past Pesach over 50,000 Jews visited Hebron. Hebron’s tours attract hundreds and thousands of tourists each year. This is a reason to celebrate.
When the Oslo Accords, followed by the Hebron Accords 11 years ago, abandoned over 80 percent of the city to the Arabs, many people voiced their skepticism as to the possibility that Hebron’s Jewish community could survive. When the Oslo War (second intifada) began on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 2000, and the community came under daily shooting attacks from the surrounding hills, there were many who wrote the community off as “finished”. Who could survive such murderous attacks?
But despite the problems from the Arabs, the media, the Israeli and international left, and many Israeli politicians, Hebron’s Jewish community still exists. Not only does it exist. It thrives. It grows and expands. My wife and I have two daughters and seven grandchildren living in Hebron, with a son and his family a few miles away in the southern Hebron Hills community of Beit Haggai. Many of Hebron’s children have stayed, wanting to bring up their children in the shadow of Abraham and Sarah, just as they grew up. What could be more heartening and encouraging than to see “the younger generation” following in the footsteps of their parents, both their immediate parents and their ‘grandma and grandpa,’ the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, King David, and all the other illustrious residents Hebron has been home to. How could one not celebrate these fantastic facts?!
True, Hebron has faced many struggles, and we have no illusions about the immediate future. However, one of Hebron’s most important inhabitants taught us an unforgettable lesson. Kalev ben Yefune, when arriving in Eretz Yisrael to spy the land for Moshe Rabbenu, knew he would need some special spiritual guidance to escape the slanderous exclamations of of the other ten spies. His solution was to come to Hebron and pray at Ma’arat HaMachpela, to ask Hashem to give him strength to overcome the evil intentions of his comrades. His prayer was answered, and he was able declare: “Eretz Yisrael is very, very good.”
As was then, so too today. In Hebron, we are able to maintain our spiritual strength and faith, just as Kalev, being privileged to live next to Ma’arat HaMachpela. The same spirituality that emanated then still radiates today and gives us the ability to carry on, as shalichim for all Am Yisrael.
Recently a reporter, interviewing me, asked me about 'this problem and that problem and this issue and that issue.' Concluding, he stated/asked: "I guess you don't have too much to celebrate this year." I quickly responded, "To the contrary, we have much to celebrate. The fact that we are here is reason for celebration. True, there are problems, but those we will overcome. We overcame 2,000 years of galut (diaspora). The most important factor today is that we are here in Eretz Yisrael, we are here in Hebron, we are back home. For these reasons, of course we celebrate." [Added to the original article]
This is the essence of Hebron Day. For this we thank G-d for the privilege to live in the city of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and pray that the merit of our Forefathers will rain down upon on all our people, wherever they may be, and that just as light in Hebron brought light to Jerusalem, so too, today’s light from Hebron will shine brightly and bring spiritual strength and faith to Jews around the world.