These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Hebron: Chayei Sarah Dvar Torah

Posted on October 27, 2013 by Ben Schneider

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Based on a Dvar Torah I delivered this Friday night.

Cave of MachpelahI was surprised that I was able to connect with prayer at the Cave of Machpelah. By the time we reached the cave on Tuesday, we had been in Hebron for about five hours. We had toured the city, met with the spokesman of the Hebron Jewish community, been welcomed to the home of the member of our group who lives in Hebron, and spoken with a Palestinian peace activist. Looking around the main area of the building over the cave, which we had spread throughout to pray, I knew that we had all absorbed these different perspectives in different ways and to different degrees.

The most striking thing about Hebron is the presence of the army, and, accompanying this reality, the lack of people out and about on the streets. It’s a ghost town. I wondered in the lead up to the time set aside for us to pray at Machpelah, “how can I pray in a place like this, where it’s clear that my presence, legally and historically justifiable or not, is causing extreme discomfort and inconvenience for other people?”

All the conflict in Hebron comes down to this: access to pray at the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are believed to be buried. So I asked one of my respected teachers, as we stood outside the Cave of Machpelah gift shop/food court, if he could textually justify to me why it’s important to pray at gravesites.

Mishne Torah and Shulchan Aruch, the most important summaries of Jewish law and customs, don’t mention this practice in a favorable light. Rambam, the author of Mishne Torah, even seems to recommend against it, according to Hilchot Ahvel, Perek 4, Halacha 4:

ד  ומציינין את הקברות, ובונין נפש על הקבר; והצדיקים, אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהן–דבריהם הם זכרונם.  ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות.

Markings are made on the graves, and a tombstone is placed on the grave. But for the the righteous, we do not build for them a memorial monument on their graves — their words are their memorial. And one should not incline to visit graves.

Now, the situation is a bit more complicated with Machpelah. Rambam spent only a short time in Israel, but in a letter that he wrote from his time here he mentions his excitement about visiting the cave, and that he “kissed the graves of his forefathers” there. With this in mind, regardless of who’s actually buried there, the fact that this site has remained revered by our people (and by followers of two other faiths) for centuries is enough for me to consider it holy.

This week in my gemara class on Kiddushin, we read a sugya dealing with appeals made to the Beit Din when property has been misappraised. Put simply, when the value of the appraisal is incorrect by more than 1/6, steps are taken to redress the situation. This ruling, however, doesn’t hold for matters of distributing land. In the rabbinic mind, land is different from all other things, in that it has no objective value. There’s too much variation in land (sandy, hilly, rocky, flat) for it to have a “fair market value.” Land means different things to different people.

This is interesting in light of this week’s parsha, as it seems that in Abraham’s time there was such thing as fair market value for land. Abraham tells Ephron, when he buys the Cave of Machpelah, that he wants to pay כסף מלא, full money, for the site. Adding on to this mystery, the amount that Abraham ends up paying is clearly not fair — it’s exorbitant. There are a lot of questions that come up from this transaction, but with the goal of drawing a positive message from this story in contrast to an extremely troubling trip to Hebron, I want to focus on something a bit earlier in the parsha.

When trying to justify a Jewish presence in Hebron, everyone’s always talking about Abraham’s payment for the Cave of Machpelah and the adjacent field. “נתתי כסף השדה, קח ממני”. Loosely: “I am giving you an absurd amount of silver for this land so that my descendants will believe they have an absolute right to it. Now be quiet and take my money.”

When focusing so much on this payment, however, we forget that the land was originally offered as a gift. Multiple residents of biblical Hebron offer Abraham the land without payment. He’s bereaved, his wife has just died, and they want to give him their choicest land to bury her. Abraham argues with these people for 10 verses before they finally agree to let him pay.

Sit with that thought for a moment. There was a time that people from other nations wanted to give our forefather land, were jumping at the chance to give him land, because he was such a righteous person. Today in Hebron, we are so badly failing at living up to Abraham’s example. I have hope for our people, thanks to organizations like T’ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (check out this article). But this Shabbat, on an individual level, instead of thinking about Abraham’s gravesite, I want to think about how to be more like him in life. His actions are his memorial.