Ma’arat HaMachpela: The Roots of the Jewish People
by David Wilder
The Jewish Community of Hebron
Erev Parshat Chaye Sarah
The Torah teaches us that Avraham, sitting outside his tent following his brit milah, seeing three men approaching, ran to fix them a meal. When he entered the sheep pen to prepare fresh meat, a calf ran away. As Avraham chased the calf, the animal suddenly disappeared. Continuing to search, Avraham saw a cave in the distance and approached, thinking that perhaps the calf had run inside. Arriving at the cave and peering in, Avraham saw a bright light glowing, from deep within. Entering to investigate, walking deeper and deeper into the cave, Avraham discovered the tombs of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. He also smelled fragrances from the Garden of Eden.
How did Adam and Eve arrive at this site? It is written that following their exile from the Garden of Eden they wished to return, but they had no idea where it was. They searched and searched until they reached a point where they could smell the exquisite fragrances of that unique place. There, the first man began digging and dug a cave within a cave, until a voice from the heavens forbade him to dig further. There he buried his wife Eve, and later he too was interred there (Zohar).
Realizing the sanctity of the site, Avraham left the cave, desiring to purchase it. According to the Midrash (Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer) he approached the Jebusites and requested to purchase from them the cave. (The Midrash specifies that the Jebusites and the Hittities were both from the same tribe, Paleshet.) They answered Avraham, “We know that your future offspring will try to conquer our home city (Jerusalem). If you agree to prevent them from conquering Jerusalem, we will sell you the cave.”
Avraham agreed and signed a contract which was hung on statues outside the gates of Jerusalem. There are commentators who hold that Joshua did not conquer Jerusalem when he entered Israel, due to Avraham’s agreement. Centuries later, King David purchased Temple Mount from the Jebusites only after he destroyed these statues.
Did Avraham really agree to relinquish Jerusalem for Hebron? No. Avraham realized that in order to attain the sanctity of Jerusalem, it was necessary to begin at the foundations of civilization, at the point which joins this world to another world, to the Garden of Eden. Starting here, at the cave, the foundations of the world, they could then progress slowly, until finally reaching the holiness of Jerusalem. This is similar the “Jacob’s ladder,” of which it is written that the top of the ladder reached the heavens but the legs of the ladder were firmly entrenched on the ground.
Where is a connection between Jerusalem and Hebron, site of these caves, discovered by Avraham, called Ma’arat HaMachpela? The Talmud says, in the tractate Yoma, that every day, before beginning work in the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the priests would look out and ask, has the sun yet risen in the east, even as far as Hebron? If the answer was positive, work would commence. If not, if it was still dark in Hebron, the priests in Jerusalem would have to wait.
Very likely the merit by which Avraham earned discovery of Ma’arat HaMachpela is due to his desire and willingness to fulfill the positive precept of ‘’hachnasat orchim,” hosting guests,, despite the very hot weather and the pain he experienced three days after his Brit Milah. This reflects Avraham’s primary trait, that of ‘chesed’ or total, unrelenting loving-kindness.
Where did Avraham learn the trait of chesed? It would seem, from HaShem, from G-d Himself. In our prayers, which we repeat three times daily, we say, “the great, strong, awesome G-d, the supreme G-d.” What would we expect to follow? Perhaps, the G-d who created heavens and earth, or who created man? No. We continue, “[G-d] who practices fine chesed and remembers the chesed of the Forefathers. This is what Avraham learned from HaShem. And this is the pillar of Ma’arat HaMachpela – chesed.
This is Avraham’s primary trait, that of chesed, as it is written, ‘He bestowed chesed to Avraham.’ Why especially to Avraham? It is written, “A world of chesed will be created.” In other words, creation of the world was dependant on total chesed, without any restrictions. Later, rules were established and the chesed was limited, borders were implemented. (So it is that Yitzhak’s trait is ‘gevurah,’ which represents the ability to live with restrictions, an enclosing, an implementation of constraints, and the opposite of chesed.)
Why was Avraham’s trait chesed? His existence in the world and his revelation of one G-d was as the re-creation of the world anew, the seeds of the birth of Am Yisrael, a time necessitating total chesed, as was during the time of Adam and Eve. And so it was that Avraham was merited to be the first person to discover their final resting place, the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
There are different levels of revelation and of recognizing HaShem. There is a superficial recognition but also a deeper appreciation.
In Israel there is Jerusalem and Hebron – Beit HaMikdash and Ma’arat HaMachpela. Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, is open to all, high upon a hill. Ma’arat HaMachpela is a cave, hidden from all eyes, inner. Beit HaMikdash extends outward. Ma’arat HaMachpela extends inward. One, to the heavens, and one to the depths of the earth. One bursts out and the other, directed towards our roots.
Of course, each site has levels within levels. Beit HaMikdash has a section called Kodesh, Holy and a more restricted area called Kodesh HaKodeshim, the Holy of Holies. Ma’arat HaMachpela has two caves, an outer cave and an inner cave.
Why then is the supreme holiness in Jerusalem and not in Hebron? This is the way of the world: “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was filled with tohu v’vohu (confusion). The Torah continues with incidents ‘on earth,’ that which is revealed. The heavens remain ‘hidden’ and untouched.
With that it should be noted that the final goal, the full redemption, is return to the era of the Garden of Eden before man’s original sin.
All may view that which is revealed but revelation of the hidden is dependant on G-d, on His chesed, His willingness to allow entrance into ‘the arena of the hidden’ In other words, Avraham’s discovery of Ma’arat HaMachpela is an example of how chesed begets chesed (i.e., an example of ‘mida k’neged mida’ – an attribute begets an atttibute).
We know of four couples buried at Ma’arat HaMachpela: Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivka, Ya’akov and Lea.
However, it is written that there are actually five couples buried at Ma’arat HaMachpela, three ‘revealed’ and two ‘hidden.’ The ‘revealed’ three are the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The ‘hidden’ are Adam and Eve and Moshe (Moses) and Tzipporah (attributed to Sefer HaTemunah in the name of R’ Nechunia HaKana and R’ Yishmael Kohen Gadol).
What is Moshe’s connection to Ma’arat HaMachpela? The Torah writes that Moshe was very humble; he was most humble of all men. Humility is a trait reflecting selflessness and concealment. Moshe brought Torah to the people of Israel and received no reward. He was as a slave and suffered, despite his efforts on behalf of the Israelites. This reflects the trait of chesed. What person would be more suitable to unify with his roots than Moshe?
In the Torah it is written (in Hebrew) Ma’arat Sde HaMachpela (the cave in the field of Machpela.) The initials of these three words, (in Hebrew) Mem, Shin and Hay, combine to spell Moshe.
Jerusalem and Hebron blend and unify. Torah –the rules, the boundaries – the tablets of the Ten Commandments, are found in Jerusalem. (Gevurah – The trait of Yitzhak; Akedat Yitzhak occured on Har HaMoria, site of Beit HaMikdash.) The chesed, the full loving-kindness without restriction, the trait of Avraham, is in Hebron. The lights of Hebron and the lights of Jerusalem merge to create a unity of spirituality which imbues the Jewish people (Ya’akov-Yisrael – the unity of Chesed and Gevurah), the revealed and the hidden, this is the secret of Ma’arat HaMachpela, a unity which cannot be, and never will be, ‘disengaged.’
With blessings from Hebron.