Several years ago, on the anniversary of the liberation of Hebron in 1967, I was interviewed by a journalist who queried me about various problems facing Hebron’s Jewish community. His concluding question/statement was, “Well, I guess you’re not celebrating today?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Well, you have all these problems and issues, how can you celebrate?”
“You just don’t understand,” I answered. “Look at where were we 70 years ago, or 60 years ago. Were we in Hebron? Today I’m here, in the first Jewish city in Israel. I live here, I work here, I’m bringing up my children here. This is my home. True, we have problems. There are ups and downs. Issues must be dealt with. And they will be overcome. But I’m here. And as long as I’m here, I have what to celebrate, and that’s exactly what I’m doing today!”
One of our most special celebrations will occur this weekend. The Torah portion of Hayei Sarah, otherwise known as “Shabbat Hebron,” is an extraordinary event. It is not an ordinary shabbat (which in Hebron is also unique). Rather, it is an event.
Over the past decade, some 20,000 people a year have capitalized on this special Sabbath to crowd into Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba to rejoice. Starting on Friday morning, Israelis young and old will begin flocking to the city. Jews from the United States and other countries fly to Israel to be in Hebron for this exceptional occasion.
Well over six months prior to this Sabbath we begin receiving phone calls and emails requesting places to sleep and eat on this auspicious day. Dozens of tents are pitched outside Me’arat Hamachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Matriarchs. Public buildings are transformed into dormitories, with separate facilities for men and women. It’s the only time of the year when my living room is wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor.
One year, on Saturday night, a young woman walked into our kitchen to thank my wife. She asked what for. The woman said she had slept in one of our rooms. We had no idea she was there, or where she slept, because the room was already packed.
A huge tent is constructed outside the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, providing meals thousands of guests. Literally every nook and cranny in Hebron is utilized, with people sleeping and eating wherever they can find a few free meters.
All hours of the day and night the streets are full of people walking to and from the various neighborhoods in Hebron. Saturday afternoon, multitudes tour the city, visiting the Hebron Heritage Museum at Beit Hadassah, the tomb of Jesse and Ruth in Tel Rumeida, and the Avraham Avinu synagogue in the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Special Casba tours are also included in the day’s agenda.
The heart of the day’s events takes place at Me’arat Hamachpela. On Friday night, literally thousands of people gather at this holy site, inside and out, to offer joyous Sabbath prayers. Singing and dancing during a huge “Carlebach minyan,” conducted in the Machpela courtyard, is unbelievably uplifting.
But the pinnacle and actual raison d’être for the ingathering begins early Saturday morning.
By 5:15 a.m., thousands make their way to early morning prayers at the Machpela. The entire building is open to Jewish worshipers, including “Ohel Yitzhak,” the Isaac Hall, available to Jews only ten days during the year. The first vatikin service, with the sunrise, is a spiritually inspirational way to start the day.
However, the peak takes place about an hour into the service. A Torah scroll is removed from the Holy Ark and opened. The first person, usually a cohen, or priest, is called up to the Torah. Following recitation of a blessing, the reader begins:
“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba –the same is Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her... and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver...four hundred shekels of silver... And Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre – the same is Hebron – in the land of Canaan...” (Gen: 23, 1-20).
HERE, AT Machpela in Hebron, some 3,800 years ago, Abraham, the first Jew, purchases the first Jewish property in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. It is an amazing thought: here we are, almost 4,000 years later, the offspring of the first Jew, present at that very site which we read about in the Torah. It is all the more astonishing considering that fact that this sacred site was off-limits to Jews for seven centuries, following the 1267 Mamluk conquest of Israel. Only since our return to Hebron in 1967 has this holy place again accessible to any and all who wish to visit or worship here.
If that isn’t a reason to celebrate, what is?
As a result of political anti-Semitism, the first Jewish site of national heritage has become an object of international controversy. UNESCO has recognized our first holy site as a “Palestinian heritage site,” demanding it be removed from Israel's list of “national heritage sites.”
Should this site again be placed under Muslim control, Jews (and Christians) will no longer be allowed to enter and worship at this holy place, as was the case for 700 years, as the Arabs consider it to be a mosque. According to Islam, only Muslims may enter and pray in a mosque.
Support for a continued Jewish presence in Hebron and at Machpela is tangible. Some half a million visitors of all religions visit Hebron and Machpela annually, letting their feet do the talking. Polls show that almost 90 percent of Israelis reject relinquishing Me’arat Hamachpela. Rejection of Hebron and Me’arat Hamachpela is equivalent to chopping off our roots. And we all know what happens to a tree when you sever its roots.
Shabbat Hayei Sarah in Hebron is an affirmation of our people’s right to live and worship freely in our land. This is the embodiment of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva: Lehiot am hofshi, b’artzeinu – to be a free people in our land. Can we be a free people in our land without the first Jewish city in Israel; without free, unlimited worship at the first Jewish holy site in our land?
This Sabbath, some 20,000 people from Israel and around the world will answer that question, at Machpela, in Hebron.
The writer is a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron.This article is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Sholom DovBer Goldshmid, who passed away last week. Born in Hebron 86 years ago, he survived the 1929 Hebron massacre, but his father, Moshe, was killed at their home. He loved Hebron with all his heart and soul. May his memory be blessed.
Printed in the Jerusalem Post http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=245849