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Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5772

by Miriam Farber | Published on December 1, 2011

Hebron-as-it-is, Hebron-as-it-could-be

We often hear about the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. At great risk to their own lives and
to their fami­lies, they saved Jews in Nazi Europe. The Righteous Gentiles hid their Jewish
neigh­bors in barns, in attics, and in base­ments, and helped smuggle them to safety. Many of
these heroes are honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memo­rial in Jerusalem, and some have
even been brought to Israel to live out their last years, supported finan­cially by the Jewish state –
only a small token of grat­i­tude, compared to their acts of bravery.[1] 

Last January, I was blessed to have the oppor­tu­nity to sit in the living room of a family of
right­eous Gentiles. The living room was above the family’s auto repair shop, and despite the
cold and rainy winter day, I was welcomed with generous hospi­tality – hot tea, sweet cookies,
dried fruit. I met the daughter-in-law and the great-grandson of a man who saved 68 Jewish lives,
at great risk to his own. 

But this right­eous Gentile was not one of those right­eous Gentiles of Germany, Poland, and
Russia. The living room above the auto repair shop was on a dusty street in the city of Hebron.
Yousef Sayyad Ahmad told me the story of his great-grandfather, as his 89-year old Syrian
grand­mother, his wife, and his chil­dren listened. In 1929, the Arab resi­dents of the city of
Hebron rioted against their Jewish neigh­bors, destroying lives and prop­erty. Yousef’s great–
grand­fa­ther took 68 of his Jewish neigh­bors into his home, hiding them in his base­ment, protecting them from his neigh­bors, even though it endan­gered his own family. Once the riots were over, he drove them, under the cover of dark­ness, to safety in Jerusalem. 

Today, Yousef tells his kids this story, just as he told me. He is committed to making sure they
know their family’s legacy. The group of fellow Jewish students that I was with that January day
is only the second Jewish group ever to visit the Sayyad Ahmad family, to bear witness to the
family’s story, to bring it out of Yousef’s living room in Hebron, and to bring it here. The stories
of the Righteous Gentiles of 1940s Europe are well-known – Schindler’s List is one of the most
famous exam­ples. But stories like that of the Sayyad Ahmad family are buried under­neath the
raw pain that still surrounds the city of Hebron today. 

Why Hebron? What makes this dusty city in the hills south of Jerusalem so special, cherished
and fought over by both Jews and Muslims? Our Torah portion this week, Chayei Sarah, opens
with Sarah’s death in Hebron. Abraham purchases a burial plot from the tribe control­ling Hebron
at the time, the Hittites.[2] This plot, the cave of Machpelah, Ma’arat haMach­pelah, becomes the
burial place of almost every matri­arch and patri­arch, except for Rachel, who is buried not so
many miles away near Bethlehem. According to midrash, even Adam and Eve are buried in the
cave.[3] The city of Hebron is one of the four holy cities of the Land of Israel – and one of the four
holiest cities in Islam as well, for Muslims also revere Abraham as a prophet and patriarch. 

The name for this sacred burial place, Machpelah, shares a root with the Hebrew word kaful,
meaning double. This biblically-given name could not be more accu­rate today. In modern
Hebron, the building that rises over the cave of Machpelah is divided into two, a Jewish
syna­gogue and a Muslim mosque, with sepa­rate entrances for each. The city is divided into two
sectors as well. In the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron, signs point tourists to Ma’arat
, and in the Palestinian neigh­bor­hoods, they direct visi­tors to the Ibrahimi Mosque.
These signs refer to the same building, to the same holy site – but divided in two halves, with
two sepa­rate names. 

With this divi­sion, it is rare to find the spaces where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims,
can come together. One part of the city is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the other by
the Israeli army. Palestinians live in both parts of Hebron. In the Israeli controlled portion, a
Palestinian popu­la­tion of 30,000 people lives uneasily next to a Jewish settler population,
between 500–800 resi­dents, all of them under the authority and protec­tion of the Israeli military.[4]
The central Palestinian market in that part of the city, formerly a bustling commer­cial center, is
dead quiet. Since the 1929 massacres, the city has been marked by pain and violence between
these two sides. Children are taught to throw stones and fear the Other. In 1994, an extremist
Jewish settler opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque during Friday services. Yousef told me that he
was there that day – and since then, every time he goes to the Ibrahimi Mosque to pray, he is
afraid to pray with his back towards the door. 

The popu­la­tions live completely sepa­rate lives, even though Hebron’s dense urban setting means
they are actu­ally living quite closely together. 

But this is not what Hebron needs to be. There is great pain and suffering there, but that is not the
whole story. Hebron’s Hebrew name, Hevron, comes from the same word as chaver, the Hebrew
word for friend. The city’s Arabic name, al-Khalil, has that same meaning – friend. 

One city,
divided into two parts,
with two names in two languages –
yet with a single shared meaning, a city of friendship. 

Our Torah portion opens with the death of Sarah, and closes with the death of Abraham. Burials
at the cave of Machpelah bookend the parasha. Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, come
together to bury their father, even though they have been estranged since Abraham threw out
Ishmael and his mother Hagar when Ishmael was just a child. Ishmael, under­stood to be the
patri­arch of Islam, reunites with his brother Isaac to mourn their father together.[5] 

The Torah describes Abraham dying zaken v’savea, at a good old age, after living a full life.[6]
Abraham’s death was the ideal death, if there is such a thing – he lived a full life; his death was
neither painful nor early. 

This is the way it should be, in Hebron and in every city – grown chil­dren should bury their
parents after full lives, rather than parents burying chil­dren who die as victims of violence and
hate. In Isaac and Ishmael’s recon­cil­i­a­tion, there is a hint of hope, that the younger generation
will be able to fix the wounds caused by their parents. The medieval commen­tator Rashi wrote
that Ishmael had to do teshuvah, that he had to repent, before he could recon­cile with his brother
Isaac.[7] Although the Torah does not describe anything about Isaac and Ishmael’s relationship
from the moment that Ishmael and Hagar are thrown out to the moment when the brothers come
back together to mourn Abraham, Rashi argues that this recon­cil­i­a­tion did not happen magically,
or by mere coin­ci­dence – recon­cil­i­a­tion and repair is a long process that takes work. The fact that
it was Ishmael’s teshuvah is unim­por­tant – someone had to take that first step. 

Although there is much pain and sadness in Hebron, there is also beauty. It can be found in the
encounter I had in Yousef’s living room last January, a hint of Hevron al-Khalil, a city of
friend­ship. A grandson of Ishmael greeted a grand­daughter of Isaac with generous hospitality
and respect, instead of with rocks, walls, and violence. This is what Hebron should be like – a
city where adult chil­dren bury their parents in peace, where guests are welcomed with open
arms, where we can honor those who have risked their lives to save another human being.
Instead of a divided, hurting Hebron, the Hebron of the Machpelah, the doubled cave, a city with
two of every­thing, may we one day see the Hebron that Isaac and Ishmael saw on the day they
buried their father. 

May this be God’s will. Ken y’hi ratzon.

[1] See http://​atzum​.org/​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​s​/​r​i​g​h​t​e​o​u​s​-​a​m​o​n​g​-​t​h​e​-​n​a​t​i​o​ns/ and

[2] Genesis 23. 

[3] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, 20:47–49. 

[4] Current statis­tics diffi­cult to find, see http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​H​e​b​ron and

[5] Genesis 25:8–10. 

[6] Genesis 25:8. 

[7] Rashi to Genesis 25:9 

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