In the Name of Judaism – Thoughts on Parshat “Chayei Sarah”

Rabbi Lana Zilberman Soloway shares testemony from a soldier in the IDF as well as her own observations from a visit to the historic city of Hebron in the West Bank where up to 800 soldiers are stationed to protect settlers.

Many things happened to our mother Sarah during her lifetime, but the the greatest impact she had on the Jewish future was in her death.

Sarah died at Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her”. (Genesis 233, 2)

Sarah died and Abraham wanted to bury her. Chapter 23 describes in detail Abraham’s decision to bury Sarah in Hebron and his negotiation with Efron in order to purchase a field next to a burial cave. Abraham paid 400 hundred silver coins, while buying the first plot in the land of Israel (out of three in total, the burial cave in Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and Mount Moriah in Jerusalem). “Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan”. (Genesis 23, 19)

After the burial of Sarah in Hebron, all three of our fore-fathers: Abraham, Itzhak , Jacob and two additional fore-mothers: Rebbeca and Leah, were all buried in the same cave. According to Midrash, even Esav’s head was buried there.

Jewish people have been visiting the burial site in Hebron continuously for four thousand years. From the time of the Bible until today. Hebron is one of the four most ancient Jewish cities in the land of Israel, along with Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias. The city was given to the tribe of Judah when the land was divided between the Israeli tribes. The city of King David, and an important city in so many respects, is located on the ancient, historic road of the patriarchs. Many memorable and painful events took place in Hebron, including the Massacare of the Jewish population in 1929, when 67 Jews were murdered, and the massacare perpetrated by the Jewish doctor, Baruch Goldstein, during Purim 1994, in which of 29 Muslim worshipers were killed and additional 125 injured.

Hebron is located in the West-Bank. It is the largest Palestinian city in the area, with a population of 220.000 people. In January 1997, the Hebron agreement was signed, which divided the city into two areas. The first one, H1 (80% of the city), is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the second one, H2 (20% of the city), is controlled by the Israeli Army. H2 is inhabited by 800 Jewish settlers and 40,000 Palesinians.

Two weeks ago, I spent a day in Hebron, with a group of Rabbis. We’ve learned that in every given moment, there are 650-800 soldiers stationed there. Their main goal is to protect the Jewish settlers. The Jewish settlements were built in vicinity to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and they are all close to Palestinian neighborhoods. We walked along the empty streets of the historic city center of Hebron, which not so long ago were vivid and filled with people and merchants. The famous Shohada street, in the Kasba of Hebron, was abandoned after the Army refused to allow the Palestinian shop owners to open their business, following the events of the second Intifada at the turn of the century. Many Palestinians left the city, without being compensated.

We were shocked to learn about “sterile” areas, where Palestinians cannot enter at all. The modern, western, democratic state of Israel, denies people free access and mobility, in their own city. Our hearts shrank in front of the image of the empty streets. We felt the silence and the desolation. It was beyond difficult to witness the large number of young soldiers, who must, usually without the proper skills, to control every moment in the lives of the Palestinian residents, men, women and children.

During the last fifty years, Shabbat “Chayei Sarah” has become a symbol, an icon. Tens of thousands of Jews will arrive this Shabbat to Hebron, in order to visit the cave of our patriarchs and matriarchs during the Torah reading.

The small Jewish community in Hebron, and in nearby Kiryat Arba, have been preparing themselves to host this crowd, for the entire year. Large tents are erected, in order to provide all guests with lodging, meals and prayer services. Thousands of tents of all sizes are being placed on the grass, next to the cave to accommodate campers. Needless to say, the army prepares for the occasion as well, by recruiting more and more soldiers and by confining the Palestinian population to their homes for these days.

Here is one testimony of a soldier who served in Hebron, during Shabbat Chayei Sarah, several years ago (courtesy of “Breaking the silence”) :

During Shabbat Chayei Sarah we randomly moved between the Palestinian neighborhoods in order to show presence. We lit the houses with flashlights, just like that, because we can. We wanted them to know that they are being watched. It is important to terrorize the local population. One time, one of the soldiers dressed like an Arab and waited in a certain place. We came and arrested him. While he was kicking and screaming, we arrested him. We wanted them to see how we arrested someone, even under resistance. Sometimes we would go to people’s houses. throw sticklights into their yards. Just like that, without any reason. We constantly made sure to harass the local population, all the time. People would come down for sugar, and we would demand to see their ID. Once in a while we would go into a family’s home and just throw them out. It was always random. “

History, Archeology, Biblical artifacts, the city of our fore-fathers and fore-mothers, the burial cave – all are very important. But what about the value of life and its sanctity? Is it possible that graves are more important than people who currently live next to them?

During this upcoming Shabbat, tens of thousands of Jews will come to Hebron in order to sanctify the dead. They will do that in the name of Judaism. I believe that Judaism can be understood differently. The values of life, freedom, justice, human rights, and the eternal memory of the fact that all men and women are created equally in the image of God are primary Jewish values. This includes Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants, and including of course the Palestinian residents of Hebron.

I pray for the memory of our mother Sarah and hope we will remember her pain during the binding of her son. Let us not bind ourselves and/or others who live among us. We are all the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah.

Rabbi Lana Zilberman Soloway was ordained at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is a tour Educator, scholar and Director of community outreach at RHR. Married to Daniel and mother of three children, she lives in Mevaseret Zion.

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