Todd Berman

Why I am not going to Hebron this Shabbat

(I wrote this before the horrible events of this week. I debated on whether or not to publish it; however, I still believe the point is relevant.)

And then Avraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Avraham, as a burial site. (Gen. 23:19-20)

Full disclosure, the one thing I dislike almost as much as not being with my family for Shabbat is not being home. Although I often travel on behalf of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, I will never get used to being away for Shabbat. I love my warm Shabbat table, singing zmirot with my family, learning from my sefarim, and napping with books from my home library.  I’m a home body and even leaving Friday night for a Shalom Zachar is emotionally complex for me. But there is another reason I am reticent about being in Hebron for Chaye Sarah. I understand and respect others’ choice to be in the home of the Avot for Shabbat, but I believe the issue is a bit more complex than often thought.

In one of the most poignant scenes in Bereishit, Avraham must face the death of his wife in their new homeland. In his last great act of husbandly fidelity, Avraham Avinu, buries Sarah in the cave he acquires from Ephron, a local land owner. Avraham demands to purchase the land. This decision seems to be full of contradictions. On the one hand, it goes against the explicit will of God. In a the previous chapters we read of God’s repeated promise to give the land to Avraham and his children, “I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding.  I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:8) Ownership of the land seems to be the entire Divine reason for Avraham’s arrival in Canaan:  “And He said to [Avraham], ‘I am God who took you out of Ur Chasdim to give you this land as a possession.” (Gen. 15:7)

As is so often the case, the Torah leaves much open to interpretation.  It is unclear what motivates Avraham to bargain for the land. One can imagine that he believed God’s promise and recognized that the land, indeed, will belong to him. So why did he bargain? Avraham could have rationalized taking the land as an expression of the Divine will. Furthermore, even in the people were unprepared to recognize his sovereignty, Avraham was a successful warrior with men at arms ready to attack at a moment’s notice. (See Gen. 13:14)

Furthermore, the people of the land also recognize his right to the land, “’Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us shall withhold from you his burial place for burying your dead.’” (Gen. 23:6) The children of the Hittites refuse to  ask for payment. Yet Avraham stands by his request,” And he spoke with them, saying: ‘If it is your will that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which is in the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place.’ (23:8-9) He repeats the same appeal when offered the land by Ephron, “’No, my lord, hear me: I will give you the field, and the cave that is there, I give to you; in the presence of my people I give it to give it to you; bury your dead.’  And Avraham bowed down before the people of the land.  And he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: ‘But if you will, I pray, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.’”

The Torah emphasizes Avraham’s desire to publicly pay for the field. Why is this so critical?  I have often heard that Avraham’s action proves Jewish entitlement to the land. But in reality, the Divine promise is more important for us and as Rashi points out at the beginning of the Torah, all of Bereishit confirms the right of the Jewish people to land of Israel.  Perhaps something else is at work in Avraham’s mind.

Avraham confronts the indigenous population. As we said above, he could have defeated them through arms or by Divine law and with Divine help. Yet he chooses a different path. Avraham does not want his possession of the land of Israel, at least at this point, to come about through those means. He is sensitive to the present situation. I think he realizes that he wants to acquire the land in a way which is totally acceptable to the local population.  Even with might and right on his side, Avraham feels that sensitivity to the local population is a value. No one will legitimately be able to accuse Avraham of acting inappropriately.

In a celebrated passage in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides states, “[The converse is] also [true]. When a sage is stringent with himself, speaks pleasantly with others, his social conduct is [attractive] to others, he receives them pleasantly, he is humbled by them and does not humble them in return, he honors them – even though they disrespect him – he does business faithfully, …and at all times is seen … carrying out all his deeds beyond the letter of the law to the extent that all praise him, love him, and find his deeds attractive – such a person sanctifies [God’s] name. The verse [Isaiah 49:3]: “And He said to me: `Israel, you are My servant, in whom I will be glorified'” refers to him.” (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11)

Avraham Avinu concerned himself with going beyond the letter of the law. He is our first model of sanctifying God’s name. He could have taken the land either by force or fiat, but instead he purchased what was rightfully his.  The first patriarch of the Jewish people is also the first person to sanctify God’s name. What better parting gift to his beloved wife who shared in his task of bringing the knowledge of God to the world?

This brings us back to this Shabbat. On the one hand, what better way to connect to the Avot than to celebrate Shabbat in Hebron.?  And to be clear, Hebron was given to Am Yisrael and conquered both in the time of Yehoshua and again in 1967. Like Avraham, it seems to me, we have both Divine right and military and national possession. However, on the other hand, in order to facilitate the massive influx of Jews over this coming weekend, the Israeli army must significantly increase its presence and severely limit the movement of the local population. Often a full curfew is imposed in order to guarantee the security of the 20,000 or so Jews who will arrive. This closure causes incredible hardship on the local Arab population. True, if there was no security need then the closure would be unnecessary; however, given the present reality, the IDF enforces crippling measures on large parts of the area.

Understanding the desire of Jews to celebrate in Hebron on the one hand and relating to difficulties created to the local population on the other presents a difficult conundrum. I don’t think that there is an easy answer. Those who choose to go will have the spiritual opportunity of a lifetime walking in the footsteps of Avraham. Those who choose to remain at home, in my opinion, may also be following in the path of our patriarch.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.