By Rav Yaakov Nagen
Ra”m at Yeshivat Hahesder Otniel


 

I saw an article this week in the online Times of Israel about the Bnei Menashe, a group from India claiming to have Jewish roots. They fervently wish to be recognized as Jews and to settle in Israel, and have been taken under the wings of an organization called Shavei Israel, which is dedicated to aiding lost Jewish tribes around the globe. The writer of the article states that Shavei Israel claims to be “apolitical, but some of its activities suggest it has a right-wing agenda. A 2012 trip of Poles of Jewish descent organized by Shavei visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a mostly Arab city in the West Bank, and spent Shabbat in Mitzpeh Yericho, a settlement deep in the West Bank.”

I almost did a double-take. Is visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron really evidence of a ‘right wing agenda’? Sadly, perhaps in today’s political climate it is, but if such is the case then something is seriously wrong.

This shabbat we read Parshat Chayai Sarah which opens with the death of our matriarch Sarah in the city of Hevron. Abraham, her bereaved husband, goes to great lengths and spares no expense to purchase a burial cave for her in the city. He buys and pays for the cave of Machpelah and only afterward does he bring his wife to her final resting place.

In a later Torah portion we are told that upon Abraham’s death he himself was buried by his two sons next to his wife in the same cave. And as the story of the patriarchs unfolds in the book of Genesis, we subsequently learn that Isaac and his wife Rebecca were also laid to rest there, as well as Jacob and his wife Leah.

Me’arat haMachpelah, as it is known in Hebrew, is the tomb of the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish People, and as such has been greatly venerated by generation upon generation of Jews.

About 2000 years ago, King Herod the Great built a massive rectangular enclosure over the burial caves. The same huge stones that he used to expand and fortify the Temple Mount and to expand the Holy Temple can still be seen today at the base of the magnificent structure that towers over the graves of the Patriarchs. This of course is evidence of the fact that even back in Second Temple times this was considered to be one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Throughout the long years of our exile from the Holy Land, pilgrims continued to visit Me’arat haMachpelah just as they visited the site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It remains today a powerfully poignant symbol of our age-old connection to the Land of Israel. While there remain today ruins and remnants of many of the colossal building projects of King Herod, including the Holy Temple, Masada, and the tomb that the king prepared for himself at Herodium, Me’arat haMachpelah is presently the only fully intact Herodian structure!

And you can see it yourself with your own eyes. You can go inside and come close to the graves of the Patriarchs. That’s when the Bible comes alive, when you realize that there was a living, breathing reality behind the ancient biblical text depicting the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The fact that we still have an unbroken tradition as to the whereabouts of the graves is breathtaking. The fact that there are still people on this earth that proudly identify themselves as the descendants of the Patriarchs is even more remarkable. And that these people – we the Jewish People – can stand in front of the final resting place of our forefathers and pray to the one God creator of heaven and earth, the God whose name and teachings Abraham, Isaac and Jacob dedicated their lives to propagating, is for me overwhelmingly inspiring.

Of course, you should hear about Abraham’s purchase of Me’arat haMachpelah in synagogue this Shabbat. But don’t just hear about it. Come and see it, feel it, experience it. Connect to it. Together with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it is the physical sign of the original point at which the chain of our tradition began. The chain of tradition flows through you, and it will flow onward to the next generation to the degree that it is for you a meaningful, living reality.

And it is not so hard to make it into such a meaningful reality! It does not matter one bit if your political leanings are to the right or to the left. If you have any sense of Jewish continuity or Jewish pride, you cannot but visit Me’arat haMachpelah.

comments: ynagen@gmail.com