— by Rabbi Moshe Pitchon
Judaism’s values and culture are based on distilled accumulated experiences. History is the realm in which values are actualized. Thus, nothing threatens Judaism’s fabric more than forgetting.
In other words, much of being a Jew is the result of being part of Jewish history, its past, its present, and its future.
The late philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin wrote that:
It was once said by the celebrated Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, writing in the mid- nineteenth century, that the Slavs had no history, only geography. The position of the Jews is the reverse of this. They have enjoyed rather too much history and too little geography. Moreover, the foundations of the State of Israel must be regarded as a piece of historical redress for this anomalous situation. The Jews have certainly had more than their share of history, or, as some might say, martyrology.
This reflection should throw some light on the significance that Parsha Chaye Sarah, has for Judaism today:
And Sarah died in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.
After this initial opening the chapter goes on telling in extraordinary details how Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron to bury his wife Sarah.
Jerold S. Auerbach, a professor of history at Wellesley College, who wrote Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel, notices that:
The meticulous description of the location of Machpelah in Genesis is unmatched in the biblical narrative. It sharply contrasts with the conspicuously vague location in Deuteronomy of Moses’ grave. There we merely read “no one knows his burial place to this day.” (So, too, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam were buried in unmarked wilderness graces.) Moses’ place of burial, somewhere east of the Jordan River but outside the land, “over there,” would remain forever unknown, while the Machpelah burial place has remained a revered holy site ever since Sarah’s entombment.
The Machpelah — the place where according to tradition eventually all the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel would be buried — is the first piece of real estate in the Promised Land. It was Herod, Israel’s last king who as part of his massive building program initiated in the year 37 B.C.E. built the massive enclosure for the Machpelah burial tombs still standing today after 2000 years.
Hebron was the principal city of Judah, the capital of Judah under King David, the city from which David’s Judean chief priest, Zadok came. Mentioned 87 times in the TaNaKh it is in fact the world’s oldest Jewish community.
“If we were a normal nation,” said Israel’s late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “when a visitor arrived here we would take him not to Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem] but, rather, to Hebron. We’d take him to where our roots are.”
Hebron is the only place where Jews live among Palestinians. “Nowhere on the West Bank” wrote investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman, is Islamic fundamentalism as strong or as inhospitable to outsiders as in Hebron, where there are no bars or movie theaters and where many Palestinian women wear long gowns and cover their heads with scarves. Likewise, there is no place, he added, where Jewish fundamentalism is as uncompromising. Indeed, for many Orthodox Jews, Hebron is a city that inspires almost as much passion and commitment as Jerusalem.”
Hebron is a city in which the Jewish- Palestinian conflict has assumed its most intense form, because, together with Jerusalem, it is the battleground for who owns the history of the land.
A substantial number of Jews and even Israelis hold many misgivings regarding historical claims when these claims are the alleged source of conflict. The truth is that the majority of conflicts just need an excuse, any excuse.
For Jews historical roots are existentially important. Anthony D. Smith a British historical sociologist who is Professor Emeritus of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics and is considered one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies has pointed out that
Those whose identities are rarely questioned and who have never known exile or subjugation of land and culture, have little need to trace their ‘roots’ in order to establish a unique and recognizable identity.
So, for most of the Jews, as Professor Auerbach points out,
Chaye Sarah recounts the precise moment when the attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to Hebron was forever sealed. Its annual reading affirms the unbroken link of identification between present and past.
Rabbi Moshe Pitchon live in Southern Florida. He is a graduate of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rabbi Pitchon researches and writes in the fields of Jewish philosophy, theology, religion, Biblical literature, and anthropology.