Parshat Chayei Sarah: Reconsecrating Hebron means giving it up

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(To better understand the Jewish scriptures cycle and my approach to my sermonizing versus my blogging, see my explanation. Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

Hevron, the holy city. The city full of holiness and holes, birthrights and burials. The coins dropped by Abraham into the palms of the Hittites in this parsha echo down the halls of history; and we audit what he purchased for us. We inherit so much.

Hevron is one of the four Jewish holy cities, where legend has it Jews have lived continuously for our entire history. Adam and Eve are said to be buried there. All of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, except Rachel, are buried there. We don’t know what its name means. It could mean “four” after the four pairs of ancestors, or the fourth holy city, or the four other names its held. It could mean “unity” or “fellowship” for the partnership between Abraham and the Hittites. Or because estranged brothers of two generations – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – put aside their years of enmity in order to bury their fathers there. It is the reward that Caleb the spy requests for his truthful reporting. Under Joshua, Hevron is designated as one of six cities of refuge where those accused of murder could flee for asylum. It was the city assigned to the Cohanim and Aaron’s priestly descendants. It was King David’s first capital city and his parents are said to be buried there. In the Middle Ages, beautiful poems were composed to “sleepers of Hevron,” all those buried there, awaiting the day of redemption when they would awake, rise and join us in the Messianic Day. The Arabs call it Al-Halil – “the friend of God” – and we share with them the mosque built atop the cave, the Machpela.

Refuge, city for priests, meeting ground of reconciliation, family ties, reward for truthfulness, seat of authority. Not so bad for four hundred silver shekels.

It is because Hevron is so holy place that we are so disappointed in it. A legacy as rich as this in shining precepts is despoiled by its recent history and present-day morass.

How should one behave in a holy place?

In holy places, we speak quietly, respectfully, in hushed voices, awed and appreciative. We listen for the whisper of the still, small voice against stones ancient and strong. And we hear It.

On August 24, 1929, Hevron was anything but quiet as nationalist tensions erupted in Hevron’s most infamous massacre. In the words of Aharon Rueven Bemzweig, who survived that night, “Right after 8 in the morning, we heard screams. Arabs had begun breaking into Jewish homes. The screams pierced the heart of the heavens. They were going from door to door, slaughtering everyone inside…The screams and moans were terrible. People were crying Help! Help! …As we lay on the floor of the cellar, we heard the screams as Arabs were slaughtering Jews. It was unbearable.” 67 were killed, 60 wounded.

On February 28, 1994, who could have heard the still, small voice in the cave of the Patriarchs as the mosque filled with the sound of automatic gunfire, which Dr. Baruch Goldstein unleashed on Muslim worshippers. As the New York Times reported of survivor Katem Kafisha, “When I saw Goldstein, he was running toward the hall where everyone was saying prayers. I was taking off my shoes by the door. He could have shot any one of us who was outside, but it was clear he only wanted to open fire on the worshippers so he could hit as many people as possible. He didn’t say a word.” The IDF reported that Goldstein emptied 111 rounds from 3 —½ clips in two minutes, killing between 39 and 52 and wounding 125.

In holy places, pilgrims bustle and bring in bushels their hopes, reverence, faith, and search for wonder. From all over the world a holy place collects more holiness, layers of it like the sedimentary record.

There are few pilgrims in Hevron today. A trickle. Within its center, a diehard cluster of 300 Israeli settlers sit protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. Some 20% of it is under near-constant curfew and military patrol, shops are shuttered and sniper lookouts dot the rooftops. It is a ghost town, closed off and shut down. The most recent layers here are laid by the mountain wind swirling desert dust in empty marketplaces.

In holy places, witnesses are inspired to holiness themselves – a welling up within, an electrifying of expectation, a surge of hope, the feeling that God really stands just barely concealed beyond the curtain of reality. A battery sizzling with Divine renewal.

We fear in Hevron that God has abandoned earth, thrown up His hands and found more fertile soil for cultivation. Walking the empty streets or meeting wary-eyed settler devotees or wary-eyed Palestinian residents, you feel not a welling up within but weight, hallowed out, lonely.

Hevron is deep in the West Bank, recognized in every negotiation iteration as a city that will not be kept by Israel. Whether Israeli citizens – or Jews at all – will be able to visit this fourth of our holiest cities is not certain. But it must happen or there will be no democratic Jewish state at all.

How then – after all of this history – can we give up this city? Charged with meaning and power and symbolism, how can we hand over this tiny plot of land and risk never seeing it again? (It’s not so much we hand over really, barely the side of this shul! [Congregation Beth Elohim])

Because if Hevron is a “holy city,” it was once a holier city. Exactly because today it is so hard to feel the layers of holiness buried beneath still-fresh layers of pain, we must act as if it still inspired us to the strength, the charity, the hope and generosity, the reverence and the spirit of rapprochement. We must summon those feelings from our texts and our experience of sacred spaces elsewhere if we are to reconsecrate this city as holy.

Giving away what is valuable to our people is not easy. But we want Hevron to be holy once again. Of all the acts of repairing the world that are possible to us, this act of dusting off the soot and revealing the shine beneath – surely there are fewer more sacred acts! If all of Jewish law is to bring out the holy sparks in every movement and act, how great this mitzvah is! We relinquish because we revitalize. Solomon built sacred space; the Maccabees rededicated sacred space; now it is our turn.

We must see making peace, and its hard, hard compromises, as part of the most powerful act of creating holiness our people has ever endeavored. We will infuse our kavannah, we will invite God back amongst us, we will inspire pilgrims. And when it is done we will inhale the silent, awed, hushed aura of a city of holiness, of refuge, of priestly acts, of bearing truth, of reconciliation. Hevron has so much possibility.

I wish you a Shabbat shalom and hope soon, despite all the politics, to consider the hope still latent in dire situations. We have only up to go from here. If you’e interested in investing a little time in this issue, then some of us are working very very hard, very very seriously on that future day in Hevron.

11/14/09

Judging How We Judge: Parshat Ki Tetsei

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Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, Isaiah 54:1-10
(An introduction to my divrei torah.)

It is now the Hebrew month of Elul, when we shift focus to beginning a new year and atoning. We read this week lists and lists of rules. Ki Tetsei contains some of the most sweeping calls for justice and fairness in the whole Torah:

…you shall not turn in a runaway slave to their master (Deut. 23:16)…
…you may not make a spectacle of capital punishment (21:22)…
…you must either return lost property to its owner, or hold it in trust until reclaimed, but “you may not remain indifferent” (21:1-3)…
…you shall maintain honest weights (which I think is saying something about one’s gym membership) (25:13)…
…you must leave gleanings for the poor in your harvest…
…you shall not abuse a needy or destitute laborer (24:14)…

But it also stipulates some of the most troubling and disconcerting of rules:

…you can capture wives as spoils of war, as long as you don’t sell them as slaves later (which really pushes the definition of slavery!) (21:10)…
…you may execute a rebellion son for eating a fist-sized peice of meat (21:10)…
…you may not genderbend (wear the other sex’s clothing) (22:5)…
…you must kill your daughters who are not virgins (22:13-29)…
…you may not enter combat as a soldier if you’ve had a wet dream (23:10)…
…you may charge Gentiles interest, but not Jews (23:20)…
…and whatever you do, don’t you ever, EVER forget what Amalek did to us (does anybody remember this? anybody?) (25:17)…

There are 79 commandments given in this section, dealing with judgments and rules and prohibitions and punishments. Thank heavens then that the haftarah is about forgiveness and being taken back by God:

For a while I forsook you
But with vast love I will bring you back

For the mountains may move
And the hills may shake
But My loyalty shall never move
Nor My friendship shake

Judgment and mercy are supposedly balanced in our tradition, and as we approach the High Holy Days we are thankful for the latter. In Ki Tetsei, Deuteronomy is about judgment, Isaiah about forgiveness. We have rules, yes. But we are given the rules, not us to the rules, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This is the time of reconsideration. It’s time not only to reconsider our actions, but also to put the Torah up for reconsideration. Our individuals Torahs. As liberal theologians, we know that our religion is whatever we make of it. Judaism is replete with enough laws and injunctions that we can make our religion say whatever we want it to say. And we can make our rules rule us.

Sefer HaAggadah, essentially the coda of Jewish law with the law removed to compile just the parables and storytelling, offered me two startling examples from this parsha:

Early on, the Temple priests used to hold a race up the ramp of the altar for the honor of performing the divine sacrifice. But one time a priest lost the race and with the sacrificial knife stabbed the winner dead, but without bloodying the blade. The priestly class exclaimed to the horror of bystanders, “Thanks to God, the blade is still clean!” The rules ruled, cruelly.

Another teaching regards the “wayward son” who can be stoned to death for disrespecting his parents. Rabbi Simeon spends paragraphs explaining this as simply a metaphor for gluttony, it’s not what it sounds like, nobody should ever stone their own son! But at the very end, Rabbi Jonathan adds a single sentence: “Yes, but I saw one once, and sat by his grave.”

We chose our stringencies and leniencies. Not only how I have performed up to my principles, but which principles I chose.

Have I celebrated the clean blade before a dead body on the steps of the Temple? Or have I dismissed glibly entire tractates of our tradition as dated superstition? Have I, as I personally fear, given myself undue mercy without putting my faith outside my comfort zone?

It’s time to judge how we judge ourselves. And others. Read this parsha, see the breadth of concerns our tradition could ask of us, consider what you have built. I pray you find a new balance, in a new context, for a new reconsideration. May your Elul begin meaningfully.

Shabbat shalom.