This is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die
This past week I found Shabbat morning prayers at Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron to be particularly poignant.
There were three separate minyons taking place simultaneously. To my left, in the hall memorializing Ya’akov and Leah a family from Jerusalem celebrated their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The room isn’t very large, and it was packed from wall to wall. When the thirteen year old finished chanting the weekly Torah portion, festive singing filled the building, arousing joy even in the other, adjacent services. A piece of candy bounced off of my chair, outside that room and was quickly swiped by a child sitting nearby.
To the right of the central courtyard was another group of people praying, according to the Sepharadi traditions. They were also in the midst of a celebration; A fresh chatan and kallah, bride and groom, were in attendance. The young couple had married only days before, in the Machpela garden courtyard, outside the magnificent monument above the caves of the Forefathers. There too familiar sounds of delight reverberated throughout the building.
I sat in the courtyard, surrounded by festivity, but also lost in thought. As the Torah reading concluded, a familiar Hebron resident, Yossi Lebovitch, approached the podium, and taking the Torah scroll in his long arms, began reciting “El, Maleh Rachamim,” a special prayer repeated at the time of a yartzheit, the annual memorial of a relative’s passing.
Yossi’s resounding voice rose above the joyous celebrations of the other groups as he prayed for the soul of his murdered son Elazar, killed eight years ago this week, on the eve of his twenty first birthday. A soldier at the time of his death, Elazar was chauffeuring a newlywed couple, a close friend of his, to Hebron for the traditional Shabbat post-wedding party. A few kilometers outside of Hebron terrorists opened fire on his car, hitting and fatally wounding him.
When Yossi Lebovitch finished the short memorial for his son, he continued, again repeating the ancient prayer, this time in memory of sixty seven Jews slaughtered in Hebron eighty-one years ago this week, in the summer of 1929. Men, women and children were tortured and massacred by their friends and neighbors. Three days later the survivors, some of whom were saved by Arabs, were expelled from the city, bringing about an end to a Jewish community thousands of years old. A small group returned in 1931 but were evicted in the spring of 1936, being told that the Mufti, Haj Amin El Husseini, who led the 1929 riots, was again inciting against the Jews and their safety could no longer be guaranteed. From 1936 until 1967 Hebron remained Judenrein.
Every year, on the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, people gather at the martyr’s plot in the ancient Jewish cemetery to mourn those killed decades ago.
The weekly Haftorah reading, from the prophet Isaiah, on the Shabbat preceding this anniversary, begins with the words, “Nachamu Nachamu,” “consolation, consolation.”
Where is our consolation?
My wife and I hosted, this past Shabbat, close friends of ours who live in Kiryat Arba. We’ve known them for many years and have spent much time together in the past. But this time was extra special.
Why so? My friend Shlomo is a Cohen, of the traditional ‘priestly caste.’ It is well known that Cohanim are forbidden from entering cemeteries, and for that reason Shlomo had never visited inside the building atop the caves of Machpela, despite his living in Kiryat Arba for about 25 years. However, lately, due to certain technical structural changes in the building, Rabbis have ruled that it is now permissible for Cohanim to enter this holy site. So, on Shabbat morning I escorted my friend, for the first time, into Ma’arat HaMachpela.
I cannot fathom the feelings of a person accessing this sacred site for the first time, but I could visibly see his excitement and emotions. It was a very special moment. Later I asked him what he felt, worshiping for the first time inside Ma’arat HaMachpela. He responded, “I remember the first time I went to the Kotel – the Western Wall, and this was certainly no less than that. I remember then feeling, ‘we are here – Am Yisrael is here.’ And that is what I felt now, at Ma’arat HaMachpela. The Jewish people are here, really here.’
That is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die, despite a two thousand year exile, despite the destruction of the primary symbols of our essence – the Temple, Jerusalem and Jewish independence in our land. We suffered exile after exile, torture and death at the hands of persecutors and crusaders, but refused to give up. Culminating, of course, with the most horrific moment, that being the Holocaust, and the most uplifting moment, that being the creation of the State of Israel.
This is not only solace; rather it is our response to the evil perpetrated against the Jewish people for thousands of years. Standing next to the graves of the dozens of martyrs slaughtered in Hebron, eight y one years later, we can truthfully declare: we are your consolation, we have come home, the Jewish people are here, in Hebron.