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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

by Charlie Schwartz | Published on November 1, 2009

Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba, now Hebron…”

This Shabbat, thou­sands of Jews will descend on the holy city of Hebron in commem­o­ra­tion of the death of Sarah.  Gyms will be converted into makeshift dorms, tents will sprout up around the city, serving food and hosting the pilgrims, and massive minyanim will form in and around the maarat hamakh­pelah, the tradi­tional burial site of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. The streets will fill with excite­ment and joy, and maybe even spir­i­tual ecstasy buoyed by the deep histor­ical and reli­gious Jewish connec­tion to Hebron. But I don’t have access to this spir­i­tual joy. For me, the hatred, fear, and violence that mar modern Hebron seal off the path to the holi­ness of ancient, mythic Hebron.

Among the places I served while in the IDF, Hebron was the most diffi­cult, the most phys­i­cally and psycho­log­i­cally draining, the place where moral lines were most blurred in the name of secu­rity. There, I encoun­tered the harsh real­i­ties of a city under occu­pa­tion, a city where 500 hard-line Israelis live among 130,000 Palestinians. I came to know Hebron as a city of intense conflict and strife. My role there as a solider was as much desper­ately trying to keep distance between Israelis and Palestinians as it was preventing terror­ists from hiding within the civilian popu­la­tion. Among my unit, there was constant talk about the theo­ret­ical calculus of whether our over­whelming pres­ence in the city stopped more terror­ists than it created.

My memo­ries of modern Hebron are vivid; patrolling the Old City shuk’s shut­tered stalls, nearly aban­doned due to army policy; a bullet in the chamber of my assault rifle in case of sudden attack; chain-link over­head to protect Palestinians from being pelted with garbage and debris from Israelis above. I remember passing by the memo­rial for Shalhevet Pass, an infant murdered by a sniper, before I entered the Casbah to perform random searches of homes. Noticing a small inwards facing niche on a door post, possibly mezuzah remnants left by the Hebron Jewish commu­nity massa­cred in 1929, before pushing into the home of an elderly man eager to show a picture of his son, murdered at prayer by Baruch Goldstein.

While studying this past year at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I had the oppor­tu­nity to return to Hebron several times as a civilian. Hearing Palestinian narra­tives of life in Hebron while trav­eling with groups like Encounter and Shovrim Shtika, rein­forced the deep sadness I feel around the reality there. These narra­tives depicted a city divided by hatred, where the Israelis who live there are often abusive and violent to their Palestinian neigh­bors, where Israeli law is rarely enforced, creating an unten­able situ­a­tion for many Palestinians. These visits also rein­forced the confusing and complex nature of the history and hostility surrounding Hebron. Each side wields the dates of their tragedies and massacres like weapons in a duel as if hoping that 1994 will somehow outweigh 1929, or that 2003 is only seen in the context of 1967.

This week, as we read the parashah of Hayyei Sarah, when we cele­brate the life of our matri­arch and her burial place in Hebron, is an oppor­tu­nity to learn and reflect about the situ­a­tion in modern day Hebron. For those who are unfa­miliar with what occurs in Hebron on a daily basis, this can be a time to learn and discover. For those who are unsure of what they think of the situ­a­tion, this can be a time to decide. Hebron is a city too holy and sacred to be destroyed by violence and hatred.

In November 2009, a group of 13 rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educa­tors and lay-leaders who spent time in Hebron invited their commu­ni­ties to examine the conflict there by deliv­ering divrei Torah on Parashat Hayyei Sarah. Their audi­ences included Hadar, JTS, Hebrew College, HUC, RRC, Mercaz Hamagshimim, Wesleyan U., and others.

Charlie Schwartz is a Rabbinical Student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he deliv­ered this dvar torah in November 2009. He presented a longer version of it the following Shabbat at Kehillat Hadar, and also printed it online at Jewschool​.com . To learn more about Charlie and find more of his writ­ings, read his alumni profile.

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