The Spark of Return
by David Wilder
The Jewish Community of Hebron
September 19, 2006
Usually when I give tours in Hebron, I do the talking and the visitors do the listening. Hebron’s highlights are much more than just seeing the sites. The history, the culture and tradition and, for me, the stories, are what make a good tour. However yesterday, in the midst of an excursion around the city of the Patriarchs, my guest turned to me and said, ‘now I want to tell you a story.’ And what a story it was, especially for this time of the year, only a few days from Rosh HaShana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
The story starts in Hebron, August, 1929. The riots that swept Hebron left 67 dead and over 70 wounded. One of those who survived, and was not physically injured was a young woman from a well-known family. True, she wasn’t physically hurt, but the anguish, hearing the screams, witnessing the rape and torture, experiencing the horror, left not only scars, but open wounds on her soul.
She decided ‘enough is enough. I don’t want any more of this.’ She met a British officer, married him and fled Eretz Yisrael. For Australia. Leaving her Jewish roots, her family roots, her Hebron roots, far behind. But just Australia wasn’t enough. She made her way, with her husband, to some remote village, populated by Australian aborigines, basically forgetting what seemed to her to be a retched past.
The years went by and she gave birth to a son who grew up having no inkling of his mother’s past. He too married an Australian women and had children of his own.
But something bothered him. Israel. Israel kept tugging at him, for no rational reason. He couldn’t get Israel out of his mind, and was almost literally going crazy. His wife had no idea what was happening to her husband and didn’t know how to help him. His mother, remembering her past, kept her mouth shut.
Finally, he couldn’t take it any more and left Australia to visit the holy land. When he returned he still couldn’t rid himself of a constant attachment to Israel. At long last, seeing her son’s turmoil, the man’s mother sat down with him and told him her story. ‘My son, I am a Jewess – I came from the holy city of Hebron, and fled, following the horrors of the 1929 massacre. If I am a Jew, than you too, my son, you too are a Jew, from a prestigious Jewish family, a family of deep fertile Jewish roots, from the first Jewish city in Eretz Yisrael.’
Yesterday’s guest told me how he happened upon the family, this man and his mother, who turned their home into something of a ‘little Israel’ in the middle of nowhere in Australia, hosting Jews, and primarily Israelis who make it a point to come and visit there because ‘there’s a family there who helps Israelis.’
Why is this story so appropriate for the days preceding the High Holy Days? In every Jew is a spark, a spark of sanctity, a spark which cannot be extinguished, even in the most dreadful circumstances. A person can try to run, flee, escape, but the spark is an integral part of his being. It cannot be left behind. It can be buried deep within the soul, it can be forgotten or ignored, but it cannot be quenched. This is the spark of Judaism.
During this time of the year, observant Jews attempt to deal with the concept of ‘Tshuva’ which is usually translated as repentance, but literally means ‘return.’ Repentance literally means remorse or sorrow, but this is only one aspect of Tshuva. In order ‘to do tshuva’ a person must repent, but that alone is not enough. If a person is sorry about what he or she did, but then turns around and does the same thing again, of what value is the remorse? Rather, repentance is the first stage, but the second stage is to accept upon oneself a vow, not to repeat the same mistake again. And to really try and keep that self-made promise.
In Judaism, this concept is called Tshuva – returning. Returning to what? To our fundamental selves, to the purity of our initial being, returning to the life that G-d laid out for us, via Torah and mitzvot, fulfilling the positive precepts and refraining from forbidden acts.
Why is this called ‘tshuva’ – returning, what are we returning to? We are returning to that spark, deep inside us, rediscovering it, allowing its light to warm us, to envelope us, to fill us with a Divine spirit; to allow that spirit to be at one with us and to try and live accordingly, each person at his own level and ability. So it was with this one man, living so far away, but sensing a spark deep inside him, pulling him, not giving him peace, until he discovered the source of his existence, the roots of his life, the spark of Judaism which was a part of his soul.
This year has not been easy in Hebron. Trying to live with the pain of last year’s expulsion from Gush Katif and the northern Shomron was difficult enough. However, the hurt didn’t stop there. This year, since February, Hebron residents were expelled from 12 homes – nine in the Mitzpe Shalhevet neighborhood, known as ‘the shuk’ and another three apartments in Beit Shapira, just down the road from the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. The Rinat Shalhevet Torah center, opened in the Mitzpe Shalhevet neighborhood in memory of murdered infant Shalhevet Pass hy”d was forced to move. All in all, not an easy year. So, in retrospect, how do we deal with these issues?
The answer, I believe, is buried in the above story. First, we have to remember that our very existence today in Eretz Yisrael is something of a miracle. For two thousand years Jews lived as a persecuted minority, being forced, in many instances, to convert or be killed. Thousands, tens of thousands, were murdered for one reason alone, because they were Jews. Our return to Eretz Yisrael was, and is, nothing less than a true Divine miracle. A rekindling of a spark.
Our return to Hebron, even after the return to the Land, even after creation of the State of Israel, is too a miracle. Who could have dreamed of Jews living next to Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, off-limits to Jews for 700 years? Following the 1929 riots and massacre who would dare live in a city of such hate? Yet, back we came, again a miracle, this time the miracle of 1967 and the Six-day war.
Following Oslo and the Hebron Accords, the Hebron Jewish Community was as good as finished – so we were told. How can Jews continue living in a community filled with terrorists who controlled about 90% of the city, including the strategic hills, which surround the civilian Jewish population?
And then, exactly six years ago – the Oslo war, on the eve of Rosh HaShana, 2000, – for two years the terrorists used those hills to shoot at us in an almost unceasing attempt to chase us from our homes. Yet they did not succeed. The Jewish Community of Hebron would not be vanquished. The spark continued to grow.
True, sometimes there are setbacks, at times the powers of evil give an illusion of bettering the powers of good. But this is only an optical illusion, temporary, soon to be forever changed.
Because the same spark that pulled and tugged a man who grew up as a non-Jew in the depths of Australia, bringing him back to his Judaism, that same spark continues to pull and tug at the Jewish people, wherever they are, be it in North America, Europe, South Africa, or Israel. That is the spark that brought us back to our land, to Eretz Yisrael, that brought us back to our Hebron, and that will eventually bring us back to Mitzpe Shalhevet, the rest of Hebron, to Kfar Daron and Netzarim, and to all of Eretz Yisrael,
That is the spark inside our neshama, inside our souls, individually and collectively, the spark of Torah, the spark of Am Yisrael, the spark of Eretz Yisrael, the spark of Tshuva, the spark of return.
Shana tova – Happy New Year.
With blessings from Hebron.
This article can be commented on at: http://www.davidwilder.blogspot.com/