Seventy Faces of Torah Honoring Our Burial Grounds
Parshat Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18
When I traveled to Hungary and Poland this past summer with a group of women including four rabbinical students, one rabbi, and the director of a Jewish social justice organization, we visited many burial grounds. We went to cemeteries where important Jewish historical figures are buried, and others where almost all of the gravestones have been stolen or destroyed. (Almost no one visits those cemeteries; you have to rely on someone who knows—and there aren’t many people who know— to tell you that a Jewish cemetery used to be there.)
We visited the sites of atrocities, where Jews are buried in mass graves—at a death camp; in a small village; in the Danube River in Budapest, where tens of thousands of Jews were shot and killed; and in a neighborhood in Warsaw, whose walls are literally built out of the rubble and bones of the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto and its inhabitants.
We had traveled to Eastern Europe keenly aware of the narrative that Jewish life there is over, that all we would find is death and destruction—but that was far from our experience. We encountered extraordinary vibrancy and creative renewal in the Jewish communities we visited. Paying our respects to the dead while experiencing so much hope helped me think about how we incorporate the legacies of our ancestors, and their deaths, into the future we are creating—each grave telling a different story about how people lived and died, and inspiring a different kind of legacy.
Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with the death of our matriarch Sarah and her husband Abraham’s need to bury her. After an immediate period of mourning, Abraham asks the local people to sell him the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah. A negotiation ensues, in which Abraham insists on purchasing the land where the grave is located, despite some legal complexities (since he is not a local citizen).
The classical rabbinic tradition celebrates this act. Abraham carefully followed the local process for purchasing the land. He ensured that no one could dispute or prevent his family’s future access to the grave. Most important, Abraham found an honorable place to bury Sarah. Midrashim describe the cave as a protected and even luxurious grave; the reward of anyone buried there, says one midrash, will be doubled.
Abraham is celebrated for astutely and lovingly finding an enduring resting place for his beloved. In recording this story, Parshat Chayei Sarah serves as foundation for not only the mitzvah of burying our dead, but the attention with which we bury them, mark their gravesites, and continue to care for them for generations. Though Jews around the world honor their deceased loved ones in many ways, the importance of having a place where we imagine they are protected and where we are able to “visit” them runs deep and wide.
In Hebron today, Jews continue to visit the cave of Machpelah, which the Torah tells us is also where Abraham is buried, and eventually Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob as well. But visiting our ancestors today is not a simple act. Both Jews and Muslims have experienced significant historical events as well as tremendous violence in Hebron. The cave of Machpelah is sacred to both communities, and a synagogue and a mosque are both built around it.
Today, in the Old City where the cave is located, approximately 40,000 Palestinians live alongside several hundred Israeli settlers, who terrorize the Palestinian population with arson, theft, spitting and throwing rocks and garbage, and verbal and physical assault. When I visited Hebron, it was clear that the goal of these acts is to make life unbearable for the Palestinians, in the hope that most of them will leave and exclusive Jewish access to this holy site will be secured.
The Israeli army’s priority there is enabling the settlers to establish their homes, as well as Jewish tourists to access the gravesite while encountering as few Palestinians as possible. As a US Jew, when I visited Hebron, I was permitted to enter the synagogue, scrutinized by heavily armed soldiers.
But all around me, Palestinian residents of Hebron were denied access not only to the mosque, but often to their very homes. The Israeli army severely restricts the movement of all Palestinians in Hebron. Shuhada Street, once the bustling center of town, lies silent and shuttered, the front doors of homes welded shut by the army, the entire street closed off to Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinian businesses have been closed by army orders, and over a thousand more have closed because customers cannot access them.
It was extraordinarily painful for me to visit Hebron. I consider Abraham and Sarah to be my mythic ancestors, and the idea of honoring them in the place they were said to be buried, where Jews have visited them for generations upon generations, was very powerful to me. But knowing that Palestinians suffer the repercussions of my ability to access their grave made it too painful to connect with them there. Abraham and Sarah were famously celebrated for their hospitality; it feels shameful to kick people out of their own homes in the name of honoring these ancestors.
In Eastern Europe, I found myself confronting other painful realities while visiting graves. So much healing is needed, among the descendants of both those who died and those who killed them. So much has been forgotten or obliterated about the Jews who died there. But other realities are comforting: My group was guided by several non-Jewish Poles who have dedicated their lives to preserving the memory of the lives and deaths of Jews in Poland, and to making their gravesites serve as powerful memorials. Acknowledging our painful shared history, they have become a part of the Jewish story that we tell future generations—a story of hope, friendship, and solidarity.
I found hope in Hebron, too. A Palestinian man there asked me, “But don’t you feel connected to your holy places? Don’t you want to be able to visit your sanctuaries and the graves of your ancestors here?” I was able to tell him that, yes, I want to visit Abraham and Sarah; yes, I want to visit my grandfather, who is buried in the Jezreel Valley; yes I want to visit Jerusalem. I long for the day when I can visit those sacred sites not at the expense of other people’s rights. His questions carried with them a blessing, a vision of a future relationship to those holy graves that does not come at anyone’s expense: the hope that Abraham and Sarah’s legacy might someday be fully honored by extending the rights to home, movement, and dignity, as well as safe access to all of our respective (and our shared) holy sites, to everyone, and that the cave of Machpelah might once again become an honorable burial place.
Leora Abelson is in her final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College. To learn more about her trip to Eastern Europe, visit her group’s blog.