Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Walk Article-Chaye Sarah-5774



Chaye Sarah, 5774

Rabbi David Walk


Recently, Israel television broadcast a series on holy sites, but it wasn't your average travelogue.  Sadly, the programs were titled Dam Kadosh, Holy Blood.  The tragic reality is that these places have been the scenes of bloody clashes and are fiercely contested by Israeli and Palestinian.  The irony of the matter is that the three places shown, Joseph's tomb in Shechem, the Temple Mount and Ma'arat HaMachpelah in Hebron are cited in the Midrash (Genesis Raba, 79:7) as the three places concerning which no one can taunt the Jewish nation with the charge that we stole them.  That's because all three have Biblical verses describing how they were all bought for cash by Ya'akov, King David and Avraham from the previous uncontested owners.  The programs emphasized the violence and the vehemence of both sides.  Rather than inspiring a sense of holiness and piety, these broadcasts leave the viewer drained and despondent.


But what is the attraction of these locales which brings out such zealous rage?  I think that part of our link to our faith is developed through our connection to the history of our people, and these shrines symbolize that connection.  We are moved and inspired by the deeds of our ancestors, and at these sites the bond comes to life; it is almost tangible.  Well, can't both peoples share those associations?  There's the rub.  Each religion claims the birthright.  As Esav found out, when he cried out in anguish, only one son claims the crown.  Yishmael and Yitzchak still vie for Avraham's affection and mantle.  At some point we have to ask ourselves a question:  Is this affection for a modest piece of real estate worth it?  It's just a few rocks and earth, and isn't religion really about ethereal things?


 George Steiner (b. 1929), who is one of the great thinkers and writers of our time, said that exile is a virtue.  Didn't Avraham himself have to leave home and hearth to find himself as a rootless sojourner?  For Steiner, exile is no punishment; it is, rather, a liberating state of detachment which enables the Jew to undertake his authentic mission on earth.  The Jews' status as guests among the nations has far-reaching moral implications. The Jew's wandering in the gentile world enables him to act as "moral irritant and insomniac among men," a role that Steiner calls an 'honor beyond honors.'


I remember in the euphoric days after the monumental, miraculous victory of the Six Day War in 1967, that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was ambivalent.  He was overjoyed that the Jewish nation had been saved from immanent disaster, but saddened that hundreds of young men's lives had been cut short.  He said that the stones of the Western Wall weren't worth the blood of even one Jewish soldier.  The Rav felt that the importance of the State of Israel was that it protected Jewish lives throughout the world.  Jewish blood had become dear again.  No longer could our enemies spill our blood without paying a high price.  The State built our pride and our safety.  The significance wasn't in property but in principles.


So, we should ask ourselves what is the implication of Avraham buying the burial plot in Hebron for his beloved Sarah in this week's Torah reading?  Many thousands flock to Hebron this Shabbat to celebrate our possession of this shrine, which we were forbidden to enter on pain of death from 1187 until 1967.  Is Ma'arat Hamachpelah worth the price in military expenditure and human lives?  I don't know.  Could we have a meaningful Jewish state in the Holy Land without access to this holy site?  I'm not sure.


 When I lived in Efrat, just eighteen kilometers north of the tomb, I visited it often.  Those years that I couldn't visit my father's grave back in Boston in fulfillment of the custom to do so every Elul as a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, I instead visited the graves of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Ya'akov and Leah.  They're my parents, too.  When I found that life had dealt me more than I could handle, I went to pray and meditate at this memorial.  I usually went to the small chapel above the assumed graves of Ya'akov and Leah, because those are also my parents' Hebrew names.  And most of the time that was the quietest spot in this massive building.  My children received their first Chumash or Siddur there.  My oldest son put on Tefilin there for the first time.  I've never left there without feeling spiritually renewed; I've never regretted a visit there.  But if I couldn't visit ever again, would that be an unrelieved tragedy?  I don't know.


In this week's parsha Avraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite to purchase the final resting place for his soul mate and life's partner.  Our first Patriarch wasn't satisfied burying his wife amongst the pagan graves, and struggled mightily to gain a private plot.  Our people's history comes to life in this shrine built by Herod before the turn of the modern era.  It's the world's oldest building still in use.


Our beloved modern State of Israel provides the Jewish nation with many benefits.  The safety and security, which the Rav discussed is perhaps foremost among them.  But there are other benefits both practical, like a thriving economy and vibrant scientific community, and spiritual, like Yeshivot and access to our historic heritage.  We have built an amazing modern country which gives us pride and a sense belonging, but our feelings for this strip of land are steeped in millennia of dreaming and centuries of reciting Next Year in Jerusalem.


It's hard to believe that there could be a truly Jewish state without these sites.  I don't know if the State could survive without them, but they would be sorely missed.   Let's pray that we will always have our new State and our ancient sites.