The Holy Killing Field

My mind is stuck, but my feet show me where to go.


The broad, familiar boulevards of west Jerusalem lead me down to the Jaffa Gate, an ancient portal to the snaking alleyways and memories held tight by the old city. Pinned against the booths of the Arab merchants’ shops by a United Nations of vacationers in the old souk, I breathe in deeply the aromas of coffee, cardamom, and cat piss; they awaken memories of my younger, stupider self, while around me I listen to the tourists let loose from their buses, who bargain away their cents and good sense with the locals.  I feel once more a twisting tension in my flimsy tee shirt, where once an angry shop keeper grabbed me after I violated the unwritten code of honor of the souk:  never agree to a price when haggling, then walk away looking for a better deal.  His final words in my seventeen-year-old ears:

“You come into my shop again and I’ll kill you.”

I hustle away from the marketplace, hanging a right into the comforts of the Jewish quarter. I predictably lose my way and myself in its suburb-like homogeneity, its marked paucity of landmarks subsumed by the riot of smooth Jerusalem stone on every building.  It always happens this way, forgetfulness nudging itself onto my internal GPS. I’m forced to ask scores of people to help me out of my endless circular walkabout, my fruitless search for the stairs leading down to the Western Wall Plaza.

Like all popular sacred spaces, the Western Wall can become the object of dangerously bIind veneration, if and when its passionate adherents worship it more than God Godself.  Still, I love the Western Wall, its holiness sanctified by seas of Jewish blood, time and a billion Jewish messianic hopes.  But apart from quickly stuffing some prayer notes in its crevices, I’m not here to talk to the God of the Jews, at least not exclusively.  I’m here to imagine myself standing on the Temple Mount above and behind the Wall, where legend tells us that the God of the universe gathered dust to create Adam, father of humanity; where legend tells us that Cain murdered his brother, Abel, committing what Elie Wiesel called the world’s first genocide; where the Jewish sages tell us that the holy Temple stood, positioned over the center of the universe;  where the Qur’an tells us that Muhammad ascended into heaven.  A mythic trifecta of fatherhood, faith and fratricide.


One Friday night at the Wall, I quickly reject the idea of ever actually walking onto the Mount.  I’m too cowardly, too conventional to plant my feet at the epicenter of holiness and hatred that has been a dark potential clash point for Jews and Muslims.  I stand below, in the safe precincts of the Jews. All around me, a potential war is brewing while a symphony is being performed.  Five thousand Jews at the Wall below sing to the Sabbath queen.  At the same time, the muezzin on the Mount above calls to the faithful: melodies that could be missiles, missiles that revert to contrapuntal melodies.

My feet are stuck, but my mind shows me where to go, to an even older memory, a primordial echo of humankind’s younger, stupider self:

Some ancient ones tell this story–

Cain was a landed farmer, Abel was a nomadic shepherd.

The brothers decided to divide the world.

Cain the farmer took possession of the real estate.

Abel the shepherd took possession of the moveable property.

Cain told Abel, “That land on which your sheep graze is mine. Get off of it!”

Abel told Cain, “That woolen shirt you’re wearing is mine. Take it off!”

Their argument over ownership got out of control, then Cain murdered his brother.

Other ancient ones tell the story this way:

Cain and Abel divided everything in the world evenly.

One day, as they stood in the field on which would stand the future holy Temple,

Cain declared, “God will build God’s holy house right here, and it is my territory.”

Abel declared, “God will build God’s holy house right here, and it is my territory.”

Their argument over religion got out of control, then Cain murdered his brother.

I think to myself:

Two passionate, angry siblings, too young to know yet the arsenic flavor of aching regret.

Two younger, stupider selves, not yet wise to the way that the fuels of righteousness, ego, and filial neediness feed flames that do not warm, only burn.

Two possessive shopkeepers dividing up the world, each proprietor hissing at the other:

‘You come into my shop again and I’ll kill you.’”

I think to myself again:

“Right up there, in the holy killing field, is where the story of the younger, stupider self of humanity began.

The story continues, will play out non-stop, in all its bloody anguish. 

God calls, desperately, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’

We can’t stop answering with what the poet, Stephen Dobyns once called deft evasions and sly contradictions:

‘How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Here in the holiest place on earth, at the center of the center of the universe, I  imagine, as it were, the feet of God, the bereaved parent of every Cain and Abel, stuck, God’s mind unable to decide where to go.


In the same week that I plant my feet at the Western Wall – that I try to set my mind to the common human tragedy of the holy killing field which tradition places at the Temple Mount – I visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Authority, with a group of congregants.  We come to a bridge from which extends, over a ravine, a Nazi-Era railway car, placed deftly on tracks leading to nowhere.  Inscribed on the railing just in front of the installation are the words of the Israeli poet, Dan Pagis, entitled, “Written In Pencil In The Sealed Railway Car…”

Critical, thoughtful readers and thinkers all, we adeptly pull apart the many layers of this poem which imagines Eve, the Bible’s mother of all life, as the mother of all death shoved into a boxcar on its way to a Nazi killing field. Together with her sons, the murderer and the victim, she serves as a universal symbol of our common inhumanity, expressed so particularly by the Nazis’ war against us, the Jews.

When we come to the last line of the poem, Eve’s raw and stymied scribbling, we aren’t sure how to interpret it:

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him i

Tell him I…what?  What did Eve want to say, need to say?

I tell my friends:

“Eve’s words come abruptly to an end because in the face of the first genocide, there are no words to say.  All speech at that point is obscenity.”

Another person says, “No, that’s not it.  Eve says nothing more because she’s died.” 

A third person says, “No, that’s not it either. Everything Eve needs to say to Cain and humanity is summed up in that one personal pronoun: I.  Not It, not enemy, just I.”

A fourth person completes the conversation.  “You’re all correct.  Yet I also wonder if, in fact, Eve’s speech so abruptly ends because she is no longer speaking about or to her son, Cain.  She’s speaking to us, begging us: ‘I can’t and I won’t complete this sentence.  That is up to you, the reader.’” 

At that moment, I feel my feet lifted off the ground, my mind directing me exactly where to go, back to the Western Wall, back to the Temple Mount, back to the holy killing field.  This isn’t a Kumbaya moment, I’m not visited by boundless joy at humanity’s eventual salvation; my renewed hope for an older, wiser self of humanity is fragile, tentative, but it’s hope nonetheless.  I imagine one of those scribbled notes, not Eve’s, not some tourist’s, but God’s, falling out of a crevice in the Wall.  On it, God has written to me, to each and all of us:

“The ending for this story that you and I have been writing was, is, and always will be entirely in your hands, Cain, son of Man. 

 See that you write it differently in the future.”

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.