By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
“They kidnapped me.”
On June 12th those words, those horrible words, were whispered by Gilad Shaer into his cell phone. He had been hitch hiking in Gush Etzion with Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah. Three teenagers. Youngsters. Children. Our children. Hiking in our Judean Hills on their way home from yeshiva when Palestinian terrorists, members of Hamas, abducted them.
Our children were taken.
IDF’s Nahal Brigade conducted a vigorous, relentless and determined search as the Jewish world held its breath together with these three young men’s families. We hoped against all odds that they would be found alive.
On June 30th, despite our fervent and desperate prayers, search teams found the bodies of the three missing teenagers in a field north-west of Hebron, apparently killed shortly after their abduction nearly three weeks earlier.
Hebron! Once again, you hold our beloved dead!
* * *
Abraham then requested that Ephron the Hittite, the son of Zohar, give him the cave of Machpelah, in the end of his field, “for as much money as it is worth”. Genesis 23:9 After Ephron confirmed that he would give the cave, in verse 11, Abraham further requested that he give him the field for money, in verse 13. Ephron agreed and named a price.
We are taught that, despite God’s promise of the Holy Land to Abraham and his descendants, Abraham’s purchase of the first property to be his, a funeral cave for Sarah, further cements our ancient and eternal claim to this land.
When I approach the Me’arat HaMachpela, it is never lightly. With each visit, I carry the awareness of its power and significance. With each step I take, I feel the echo of our patriarchs and matriarchs. I hear their voices in my ear. And, as if geography were not powerful enough, the time of my visit imbues me with an overwhelming sense of urgency and sanctity. For when my wife and I approach the Me’arat HaMachpela, it is always during the Yomim Noraim; between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I return. Chazara.
Each visit unique. Each filled with its own emotion. It was only last year when, soon after our visit, we learned that one of our IDF soldiers safeguarding this most holy place was murdered by an Arab sniper. I hurried to study the photographs I had taken, looking closely at each face. Was he the brave young man beside me, smiling into the camera so that I would have a reminder to look at throughout the year until my next return? Was it he, my beloved IDF brother, who among other IDF chayalim make it possible for all of us to come cry and plead with God at this holy site?
R’ Yudan bar Simon states in the Midrash that the Machpelah in Hebron, “is one of the three places about which the nations of the world cannot taunt Israel saying, these are stolen lands: the Cave of the Machpelah, the Temple and the burial place of Joseph (Shechem).” Not that one does not feel the “taunt” of the world as he drives through the narrow Hebron streets, with the piercing, murderous eyes marking each kilometer of his journey.
Each year. Each step. Each prayer. Always so heavy with emotion, with hope, with sanctity. But this year, this year the weight was heavier, the hope more distant, the prayers more grieved. For this year, as we cried to God, experiencing the eternal fear and trembling in these halls, the resting place of our Avos and Imaos, we carried with us the knowledge of our three young hikers, our three young men brutally, our children, gruesomely murdered and dumped unceremoniously in the fields of Hebron.
As I lingered here, close by the Ohel Yitzchak open to Jews on one of the ten days so Jews can pray at Yitzchak’s kever, I could hear them; I could hear their cries, I could hear their parents’ anguished cries, I could hear the cries of klal Yisrael.
When will it be enough? When will the cost of our purchase of the land God promised us be enough?
Avraham Avinu negotiated honestly, fairly and uncompromisingly for this sacred ground. The Torah is clear in taking note of the protracted negotiations. So we may ask, along with the Malbim, “What contribution does such a story make to the spiritual message and mission of the Torah?” Perhaps it is to express one of Ibn Ezra’s considerations, “to make known the preeminence of the land of Israel over all other lands, both for the living and the dead.” Or, “to confirm the word of the Lord to Abraham that it would be his inheritance.”
But in the Torah, Abraham does not seem as one deserving this land, or having legitimate claim to this territory. He is a firm negotiator, but, it seems, overly generous. He insists upon payment for the land, and at a steep amount. Not only that but we read that after the negotiation, “…Abraham rose up and bowed down to the people of the land.”
What could this gesture signify? He was promised the land by God! He was the rightful inheritor! Even so, he purchased the land promised to “to your seed…”! And yet he still bows down to this boorish lord? What meaning can we take from this?
Certainly not glory, pride, sovereignty or majesty. No, rather the manner in which Avraham Avinu lays “claim” to the land mirrors the ongoing Jewish condition in our land, from Abraham’s time to this very moment when President Obama’s concern about 1200 new apartments in Jerusalem outweighs his worry about a nuclear Iran; mirrors the “on the one hand” but “on the other” dilemma of Jewish existence. On the one hand God promises Abraham to “make your name great”, on the other, the humiliation of having to cow down to the Ephrons of the world, the “the lords of the land”.
Nechama Lebowitz articulates the meaning of such a dilemma in her “Studies in Bereshit”, “the greater the contrast between the promise and the fulfillment, between the vision and the reality, the greater the challenge.” (p. 210)
“Come and see,” exclaims the Midrash Hagadol, “the humility of Abraham our father! The Holy One blessed be He promised to give him and his seed the land forever. Yet now he could only find a burial ground by paying a high price, and yet he did not question the attributes of the Holy One blessed be He…”
And like Abraham, we continue to pay a high price.
The price, perhaps we can continue to pay. But can we maintain his nobility in doing so? His nearly incomprehensible attitude and conduct, exemplified here, and in many instances of the Avos, is greater and more esteemed than Moshe’s.
“Alas”, says the Midrash in Bereshit Rabah, (God addressing Himself to Moshe) “for those who are gone, never to be replaced! Many times I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but I did not make known to them that My name is the Lord, as I have told you and they did not question My ways, and did not ask Me what was My name as you did ask..”
How noble to silently, faithfully and courageously accept the Jewish fate as Abraham and his children did! Can we?
Israel’s “Modern Foremothers” have certainly demonstrated that they can. The mothers of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah seem to speak with the courage, understanding and grace of our forebears. As the Jerusalem Post reported on October 7th in an article by Orit Arfa, “the layered meaning of the mothers gracing Hebron in the twilight hours is not lost on the crowd. Steps away from the stage is the traditional burial site of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah – the founding couples of the Jewish people. There’s a palpable sense in the cool Hebron air that what happened this past summer was an event of biblical proportions, and that these women are unintentionally emerging as foremothers of modern Israel, aspiring to live their lives according to a divine ideal in the midst of a family tribulation turned national.
“But here in Hebron, one of Judaism’s holy cities and also a political flashpoint in modern Israel, the overriding message is one of continuity – not from those heart wrenching days of summer, but from the days the Nation of Israel first walked the land.”
* * *
“Our story is one that started in Hebron,” Fraenkel began, referring to the story of the kidnapping. The murderers came from a Hamas terrorist network in the city; the ongoing search for the boys was concentrated on the Palestinian side, and their bodies were found in the Hebron Hills. “When I think about those days, I didn’t think they were thrown just anywhere. The tears of Hebron embraced them.”
Gil-Ad’s mother Bat- Galim Shaer spoke next. She hearkened to her son’s words to tell their story, but in his words told a story that began centuries ago. She had come across a d’var Torah Gil-Ad had written about Hebron, as if in anticipation of this moment. “The Cave of the Patriarchs was the first purchase that the first Jew made in the Promised Land,” Gil-Ad had written. “The importance of burial sites, the purchase of burial sites and the fact of them being placed together, is a strong expression of the deep family ties, even in death.”
“Hebron” he went on to explain comes from the Hebrew word hibur, “connection.”
“That,” he wrote, “is the foundation of the People of Israel – a strong connection.”
* * *
The name “Hebron” derives from “hibur“, connection, to be connected.
We are connected to the Divine promise to Abraham and all the Avos that, “this land is yours… to you and your children I will give it…for to you will I give it…” Yes, we are connected to that glory even as we are also connected to the humiliation and insult heaped upon us by the world’s Ephrons and Obamas.
So long as we can maintain the duality of that connection, so long as we remain connected to the highs and lows of our tradition and our experience, we will know the grace of Avraham and we will persevere. Yes, we will surely persevere.