This week Hebron’s Jewish Community received an unusually large number of greetings. Specifically, 14 ministers, five deputy ministers, and 24 MKs from both the coalition and the opposition (3 from Kadima), including Knesset speaker Ruby Rivlin, sent special messages of support to Hebron. This, as part of an annual celebration, as we read the weekly Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, in which Abraham purchases Ma’arat HaMachpela, the caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, almost 4,000 years ago.
Not only are politicians participating. Usually somewhere between 15 – 20,000 people arrive in Hebron and Kiryat Arba to join in the festivities. Several hundred Jews, mostly from the US, arrive in Israel especially for this special Shabbat in Hebron. Youth and adults, with knitted kippas and black kippas, some in suits, some with shtreimal fur hats, rabbis, laymen, pour into Hebron beginning early Friday afternoon. Tents are pitched outside Machpela on the garden lawn and across the street in a park. Others find a patch of floor at the entrance to a building and set there their sleeping bags. It is the only time of the only time of the year, when receiving a phone call requesting to stay with me, and I answer, ‘we still have some floor space available,’ the response is a resounding ‘great!’
One year I recall a young woman approached my wife in the kitchen Saturday night, and thanked her. My wife asked her, ‘for what.’ She answered, ‘oh, I slept here.’ To this day, we have no idea where she slept because the house was full without her.
Shabbat evening thousands fill the 2,000 year old structure atop the caves of Machpela and thousands more worship outside in the Machpela courtyard. Some pray very traditionally, while others sing and dance to tunes of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The atmosphere is both holy and joyful simultaneously.
Shabbat morning the Isaac Hall, opened to Jewish worshipers only ten days a year, is packed to the brim, with some having to stand for a lack of chairs. Here the ancient words are chanted from a Torah scroll, written by hand on parchment, reciting the purchase of the caves and the field by Abraham for some 400 silver shekels, thousands of years ago. It should be noted that according to recent studies, four hundred shekels in the time of Abraham is worth about $700,000 today.
The day continues with meals, lectures, discussion groups, tours of the Jewish neighborhoods, rest and Shabbat song, a wonderful way to commemorate this unique event.
The basic question that must be addressed though, is why? Why was it special then, and why is it special today? Why should so many thousands of people arrive in Hebron to recall what happened almost four millennium ago?
Let’s start at the beginning. Abraham paid a small fortune for a commodity he could have had for free. Efron the Hittite offered to give him the caves gratis. But Abraham refused. Years earlier, according to accounts in the holy Zohar and other sacred literature, Abraham had discovered in these very caves the tombs of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. Here was the entrance to Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Realizing how holy the site was, Abraham knew the only way to ensure his continued possession of it was to sign a contract and put money down on the table in front of witnesses, thereby preventing any counter claim as to the ownership of the place. And so he did just that, at an extremely high cost.
Our sages taught, some 2,000 years ago, that there are three places the nations will never be able to say we Jews stole, as it is written in the Bible that we paid money for them: Joseph’s tomb, Temple Mount, and Ma’arat HaMachpela. And today, what are the three ‘most controversial places in Israel?
Just as it was special then, so too today. The site has not lost any of its sanctity or allure. To the contrary. It must be remembered that Jews (and Christians) were prevented from entering Machpela for 700 year, following the Mameluk expulsion of the Crusaders in 1260, until the return to, and liberation of Hebron in 1967.
Why today do some half a million people visit Machpela annually, with 50,000 during the Succot holidays and this Shabbat some 20,000?
People understand that Hebron and Ma’arat HaMachpela are the roots of the Jewish people, the commencement of monotheism, the beginnings of humanity. Roots must be watered, to prevent them from drying up. Tens and hundreds of thousands of people visiting, identifying with and worshiping at Machpela is a figurative irrigation of these roots, allowing Jews and other believers around the world to soak up spiritual nutrition, so necessary for our being, both individually and collectively, and as people, as a nation.
In reality the wonder of Hebron, of Machpela, and on a larger scale, of all of Eretz Yisrael, is not what was. The amazing facet of Machpela is not that Abraham purchased it 4,000 years ago, rather it is that we are still here today, at that same exact place. How many peoples can say, ‘here we began, thousands of years ago, and here we remain today, not as a memory, but as a living, thriving organism, keeping our past alive in the present?’ I daresay, no one, excepting the Jews, here in Hebron, Jerusalem and throughout Israel.
Hebron is the beginning, the roots of the roots. We know what occurs to a tree should its roots be chopped off. In 1929 we lost Hebron. In 1948 we lost Jerusalem. In June, 1967 we returned to Jerusalem and the next day, returned to Hebron. Hebron and Jerusalem, our heart, our soul, our roots. Our past, our present and our future. This is why our holy city lives on and will continue to live on. This is why so so many people arrive to celebrate the planting of the seeds of our people in the field of Machpela, in Hebron.