Kislev 7, 5771, 11/14/2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
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
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.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
A couple of months ago I had a little shouting match with some of the border police next to Ma'arat HaMachpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. After a little while - when we had reached a dead-end - one of the regular police, a little older than the others, came over put an arm around my shoulders, pulled me over to the side and explained to me why I was wrong and they were right. I listened, and finally acquiesced to their demands, and the issue came to an end.
This might sound fairly normal and logical, but then again, it must be remembered that this is Hebron. Had the same incident occurred seven or eight years ago, I am sure the ending would have been quite different. The relationship between police and civilians in this holy city was very different. Back then if a police officer approached me, it would not have been to put an arm around my shoulder, it would have been to handcuff, arrest, and start legal proceedings against me - and who knows what else.
However, things have changed. That's not to say that we live in utopia, but at present I certainly do not look at our local police force as enemies. I can truthfully say that I consider some of the police officers to be friends - and to a great degree, the emotions are mutual. Last week a policeman called me a Tzaddik (righteous person). Now, I bear witness that I'm surely not righteous, but hearing those words from a policeman in Hebron left me with the impression that we really are approaching the days of the Messiah!
It should be kept in mind that such episodes cannot be taken for granted. Not too long ago the relationship between police and Hebron citizens could easily have been defined as something similar to open warfare. The police were used as an extended arm of the Israeli political system, and utilized to victimize, oppress and even terrorize us. It wasn't enough that the community had to deal with Arab terror and leftist harassment. Every once in a while, while looking back through photos eight and nine years old, it's difficult to believe that we really had to deal with such brutality. And of course, people in the community didn't 'turn the other cheek,' causing major confrontations, which were quite messy, to say the least.
A few years ago, as the political scene began to change, so did the people comprising Hebron's police force. Honestly, I was very surprised and to be honest, very suspicious. But over a period of time it became clear that somewhere, someone decided to attempt to change the rancid atmosphere which poisoned the relationship between the police and Hebron's Jewish population. And I can quite happily say that for the most part, it has worked.
For example, yesterday afternoon, Hebron's police sponsored a 'Police-Community Day.' True, not all the kids attended; it was very hot, some were on vacation, and others still have trouble digesting the fact that the police are not out to get us. But a nice group did show up, and enjoyed a fascinating exhibit of police dogs in action, were able to play-drive in a police car (complete with siren -every boy's dream), wear a police vest, carry around a police baton and receive a police hat.
I know this might not sound like much, but to even attempt to carry out such a program in Hebron would once have been thought of as something out of 'Alice in Wonderland.' But it did happen, and I enjoyed it very much.
Alas, innocence is a thing of the past. I'm very well aware that conflict can still arise. So what? Tension between police and civilians is not exclusive to Hebron. It's fairly common all over the world. In Hebron we face, frequently, unique situations which are liable to cause friction between the people in blue uniforms and the civilians. But today, I know that I'm dealing with normal, rational people who are not looking to break our bones because we're Jews living in Hebron - and that's very very important. I can only hope and pray that such a rapport continues, because it makes life much more pleasant and relaxed when you know that the policeman walking down the street really is a nice guy.
(See more photos and video at: http://www.hebron.com/english/gallery.php?id=361)
Friday, August 6, 2010
Av 25, 5770, 8/5/2010
I’d already spent two years in Israel when I came back officially as an Oleh Hadash, a new Israeli immigrant. I remember it fairly well. January, 1978. Having finished university and done a stint on Kibbutz, the time had come to get serious.
The plane landed sometime in the early evening. I was by myself, had no family here, but a few friends. They probably knew I was coming back, but waited for my call.
Of course, coming over as an Israeli meant that I had to ‘go through the mill.’ Actually it wasn’t too bad. The normal filling in forms in the airport office of the ministry of immigration, and then waiting for the free ride to my choice of destination. I do recall raising my voice as the hours marched on, but was told, ‘savlanut, savlanut’ (which means patience). I didn’t have much choice. My Hebrew wasn’t non-existent, but certainly not good enough to express myself in any great detail.
Finally, riding in some kind of truck, I made it to a dormitory in Talpiot, Jerusalem sometime after midnight. The gate was locked and it took some time until the building’s Russian guard finally heard the doorbell and let me in. The housemother showed me to my room, where my new roomate was rudely awakened in the early hours of the morning. Eventually he forgave me and is today a friend living in nearby Kiryat Arba.
That was how it began. No bells or whistles, but an inner sense of pride - ‘Here I am, now I’m an Israeli.’ It was a good feeling.
Yesterday I ‘made Aliyah’ all over again.
We had friends who were coming over on the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight, bringing some 230 new Israelis to our homeland from North America. The Abrams family, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, were finally coming home.
This flight over was far from their first. The family has been visiting Israel for at least one month every summer for over ten years. A few years ago they almost made it a permanent stay, but were held up at the last minute. The real hero of the family are not the parents, rather their oldest daughter, Elana, who decided that Atlantic City really wasn’t the place for a ‘good Jewish girl’ to go to high school. So a few years she left the US for Israel, on her own, to attend a women’s school in Bnei Brak. She came to visit us in Hebron every now and again; we tried to ease her way as much as we could. But in reality, her success was her own. A month ago she finished, Bagrut (graduation examinations) and all, and is planning, a year from now, to begin medical school here in Israel.
Standard studies weren’t enough of a challenge, so Elana also volunteered with Magen David Adom, and rode around in ambulances in the middle of the night assisting people who needed help. When that wasn’t keeping her busy she starred on her school’s basketball team.
In about a month Elana will begin her ‘Shnat Sherut,’ a year of volunteer work religious women undertake in place of army duty. She will be continuing her work with Magen David Adom and emergency aid, based in Kiryat Arba.
And during her free time she’ll be helping her parents and siblings adjust to their new lives in Jerusalem.
A month or so ago my daughter, who’s just a year older than Elana, received an invitation to greet the family at Ben Gurion airport upon arrival of the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight. The plane was supposed to land at about 7:30 AM, and invited guests had to be there by 6:45. That meant we’d have to leave the house at about 5:00. A little early for me. But at the last minute we decided to go.
It didn’t take too long until the Terminal 1 hall was packed with others just like us, waiting to welcome the new Israelis. Having a press pass, I was able to wait only meters away from the shuttle buses transporting the people from the plane to the airport. About thirty Israeli soldiers in dress uniform lined the walkway, with live music creating an authentic holiday atmosphere. When the first bus pulled up they began playing ‘Hevenu Shalom Alechem’ with hundreds of people waving Israeli flags, singing and cheering. As the passengers stepped off the bus, they seemed to be stunned.
There were young and old, singles and families of six and seven children. One group included a four generation family. Among the arrivals were eighty five youth who will be inducted into the army in a couple of weeks. From five months to ninty four years old, all coming to live in Israel. The expressions on these people’s faces left little need for words - they could not believe the reception they were receiving, as they took their first steps as Israelis.
My friends were on one of the last shuttles arriving at the terminal. I’d been filming video and photos of the festivities, but when I saw Ken and the others step off the bus I couldn’t really control myself. I ran over to him, grabbed his hands and started dancing, around and around and around.
Earlier in the morning I’d interviewed an NBN member, who told me that whenever he participated in these events, he had tears in his eyes. Well, he wasn’t the only one.
Finally, with everyone in the hall, a beautiful ceremony commenced, which included a speech by President Shimon Peres and a performance by Israeli singer Rami Kleinstein. But the ‘stars of the show,’ as far as I’m concerned, were Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Mr. Tony Gelbart, who initiated Nefesh b’Nefesh less than a decade ago, and have, so far, brought over 25,000 new Israelis to Israel.
Watching the event, I could only look back and remember my Aliyah experience over thirty years ago, put myself in these people’s shoes, and say to myself, “Welcome to Israel.”
Photos and video at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/4309
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Consolation Eighty-One Years Later
This is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die
This past week I found Shabbat morning prayers at Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron to be particularly poignant.
There were three separate minyons taking place simultaneously. To my left, in the hall memorializing Ya’akov and Leah a family from Jerusalem celebrated their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The room isn’t very large, and it was packed from wall to wall. When the thirteen year old finished chanting the weekly Torah portion, festive singing filled the building, arousing joy even in the other, adjacent services. A piece of candy bounced off of my chair, outside that room and was quickly swiped by a child sitting nearby.
To the right of the central courtyard was another group of people praying, according to the Sepharadi traditions. They were also in the midst of a celebration; A fresh chatan and kallah, bride and groom, were in attendance. The young couple had married only days before, in the Machpela garden courtyard, outside the magnificent monument above the caves of the Forefathers. There too familiar sounds of delight reverberated throughout the building.
I sat in the courtyard, surrounded by festivity, but also lost in thought. As the Torah reading concluded, a familiar Hebron resident, Yossi Lebovitch, approached the podium, and taking the Torah scroll in his long arms, began reciting “El, Maleh Rachamim,” a special prayer repeated at the time of a yartzheit, the annual memorial of a relative’s passing.
Yossi’s resounding voice rose above the joyous celebrations of the other groups as he prayed for the soul of his murdered son Elazar, killed eight years ago this week, on the eve of his twenty first birthday. A soldier at the time of his death, Elazar was chauffeuring a newlywed couple, a close friend of his, to Hebron for the traditional Shabbat post-wedding party. A few kilometers outside of Hebron terrorists opened fire on his car, hitting and fatally wounding him.
When Yossi Lebovitch finished the short memorial for his son, he continued, again repeating the ancient prayer, this time in memory of sixty seven Jews slaughtered in Hebron eighty-one years ago this week, in the summer of 1929. Men, women and children were tortured and massacred by their friends and neighbors. Three days later the survivors, some of whom were saved by Arabs, were expelled from the city, bringing about an end to a Jewish community thousands of years old. A small group returned in 1931 but were evicted in the spring of 1936, being told that the Mufti, Haj Amin El Husseini, who led the 1929 riots, was again inciting against the Jews and their safety could no longer be guaranteed. From 1936 until 1967 Hebron remained Judenrein.
Every year, on the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, people gather at the martyr’s plot in the ancient Jewish cemetery to mourn those killed decades ago.
The weekly Haftorah reading, from the prophet Isaiah, on the Shabbat preceding this anniversary, begins with the words, “Nachamu Nachamu,” “consolation, consolation.”
Where is our consolation?
My wife and I hosted, this past Shabbat, close friends of ours who live in Kiryat Arba. We’ve known them for many years and have spent much time together in the past. But this time was extra special.
Why so? My friend Shlomo is a Cohen, of the traditional ‘priestly caste.’ It is well known that Cohanim are forbidden from entering cemeteries, and for that reason Shlomo had never visited inside the building atop the caves of Machpela, despite his living in Kiryat Arba for about 25 years. However, lately, due to certain technical structural changes in the building, Rabbis have ruled that it is now permissible for Cohanim to enter this holy site. So, on Shabbat morning I escorted my friend, for the first time, into Ma’arat HaMachpela.
I cannot fathom the feelings of a person accessing this sacred site for the first time, but I could visibly see his excitement and emotions. It was a very special moment. Later I asked him what he felt, worshiping for the first time inside Ma’arat HaMachpela. He responded, “I remember the first time I went to the Kotel – the Western Wall, and this was certainly no less than that. I remember then feeling, ‘we are here – Am Yisrael is here.’ And that is what I felt now, at Ma’arat HaMachpela. The Jewish people are here, really here.’
That is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die, despite a two thousand year exile, despite the destruction of the primary symbols of our essence – the Temple, Jerusalem and Jewish independence in our land. We suffered exile after exile, torture and death at the hands of persecutors and crusaders, but refused to give up. Culminating, of course, with the most horrific moment, that being the Holocaust, and the most uplifting moment, that being the creation of the State of Israel.
This is not only solace; rather it is our response to the evil perpetrated against the Jewish people for thousands of years. Standing next to the graves of the dozens of martyrs slaughtered in Hebron, eight y one years later, we can truthfully declare: we are your consolation, we have come home, the Jewish people are here, in Hebron.