In 1165 Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or the Rambam, visited Eretz Yisrael. In the preface to his commentary on the Talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashana he writes of his visit to Hebron.
"And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of MarCheshvan, I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Machpela. And on that very day I stood in the Cave and I prayed, praised be G-d for everything. And these two days, the sixth (when he prayed on Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the ninth of Mar-Cheshvan I vowed to make as a special holiday and in which I will rejoice with prayer, food and drink. May the Lord help me to keep my vows…At the edge of the field is the house of Abraham, And it is forbidden to build a home there, in respect to Abraham."
Eight hundred and forty four years ago today, one of Judaism's greatest scholars arrived in Hebron, following his visit to Jerusalem. One can only imagine his excitement, standing next to the caves of Machpela, worshiping adjacent to the graves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Perhaps we can sense a little of his exhilaration through his words, by vowing to mark his visit to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and Ma'arat HaMachpela in Hebron, as an eternal, personal holiday.
Reading the Rambam's account, and feeling some of his awe, I ask myself, do people today, eight and half centuries later, still experience the same wonder when visiting such holy sites such as Temple Mount and Ma'arat HaMachpela.
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine told me the following story:
Several years ago a famous Rabbi visited Hebron with many of his disciples. Upon arriving, he told his Hebron host, "I almost didn't come." When asked why, what was the problem, the Rabbi answered: "When the famous holy Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh) traveled to the city of Meron (in the Galil) to the tomb of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, renowned Jewish scholar and mystic who lived during the Talmudic era, author of the Zohar), he first imposed upon himself many hardships and suffering, by fasting, by rolling in the snow, and other physical afflictions, in order to purify himself before approaching the holy Rashbi's cave. Then, when he reached Meron, he crawled on his hands and legs to the site itself, out of fear and awe."
The Rabbi continued: Knowing this, how could I dare allow myself to visit the caves of Machpela, the tomb of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs?!"
His host looked at him and asked, "but you are here – you came anyhow."
The Rabbi answered, "Yes, I did come. I decided that it is permissible to visit your father and mother, even if your clothes are stained and dirty."
A poignant story, but with a very profound message. Ma'arat HaMachpela - Hebron, is not only the home the founders of our people, the roots of Judaism and all monotheism, the beginning of modern 'civilized' civilization. Hebron is the home of our mothers and fathers, Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa – that simple, that deep. Mommy and Daddy will always welcome their children home, notwithstanding anything!
I have the honor and privilege to work with many different people and groups, Jews and gentiles, youth and the elderly, people from all over the globe. My tours are fairly standard; I try to express the same values and information to everyone; it makes little difference to me who they are or what the represent. The material to be imparted is not only 'information' – it is much more that that – it is the essence of our very existence.
There are those people have heard some of it before. Others know almost nothing. But when they leave, almost undoubtedly, their lives have changed.
Not too long ago an Israeli man in his 40s visited here. He came in with a friend, and told me that he'd never been to Hebron, despite it only being an hour and a half from Tel Aviv. He also admitted that he didn't know why he had bothered to come. But, after two and a half hours of touring, he told me, 'now I'm starting to understand what's going on. I'd never understood it before.'
What did he understand? I'm sure some of the 'political issues' that always make the news had suddenly come alive. But his words didn't just reflect politics; they reflected an inner spiritual awakening: Hebron- this is me!
Earlier today I toured with a group of teenagers from a youth organization. About 18 years old, these kids all knew they were Jewish. But most of them didn't know a whole lot more that that, especially about Hebron. As we starting touring it was very difficult for them to listen to me; they were more interested in talking to each other. I found it frustrating and irritating, and numerous times asked them to either stop their private conversations or leave the group.
But by the time we'd reached the Avraham Avinu neighborhood they were starting to pay attention. And when we arrived at Ma'arat HaMachpela, our last stop, they were listening. I knew that something had clicked when, telling the story of how, in 1981, a group of Jewish men were able to actually enter the authentic Machpela caves themselves, one of the young women, her mouth open and her eyes sparkling, mouthed, 'wow!'
I don't know how much she knew about Hebron and Machpela before this trip, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the few hours here left an indelible mark on her soul.
That is, I think, what the Rambam so succinctly expressed in the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this article.
This is one of our major goals in Hebron – to bring Hebron alive and to the masses, to make this holy city and these holy sites accessible to all people. Many are able to actually visit these sites; others can 'virtually attend,' via our website. This is one of our goals: to bring Hebron and Ma'arat HaMachpela to as many people as possible throughout the world, to bring everyone home to Mom and Dad!
People frequently ask how they can be a part of our mission. Presently, I have two answers: We've begun a project allowing people to become honorary citizens of Hebron. We request a minimum donation of $50. All new citizens will receive a beautiful personal certificate and updated information about Hebron. Details can be seen at http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=564.
In addition, in less than one month the New York-based Hebron Fund will host its annual Dinner. The funds raised at this event allow Hebron's Jewish community to continue to work on behalf of the Jewish people, keeping Hebron and Ma'arat HaMachpela accessible to anyone and everyone. Details can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/yjvb95o. If you can attend, great! If not, you can still select a 'Scroll of Honor Dedication" and contribute to the continued growth and development of the Jewish Community of Hebron.