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Holy Places

This past March I had the wonderful opportunity to co-lead an interfaith Jewish / Roman Catholic tour of Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey and the Catholic Diocese of Camden. It was a special time in the land of Israel. The Pope was just about to make his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The hope for a true and lasting peace - a hope now dimmed by the present conflict - seemed real. There was a sense of optimism that filled the air.

As our small group of Jews and Christians traveled through Israel, we were immediately confronted by the vast number of sites in that small country that are invested with holiness by one or more of the three faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While some sites, like the graves of saints, martyrs and sages, only attract the spiritual attention of one of the three traditions, there are many sites that claim the affection of all three religions. As Americans on a very special journey of spiritual discovery, it was easy for us to admire and respect our fellow pilgrims' religious concerns. But, we also became aware of the bitter feelings many of these sites can evoke as people in our group recalled the centuries of strife between the various faith traditions - the struggles between the Christian churches, the conflicts between Christianity and Islam and the oppression and exclusion of the Jews by both of those more powerful religious communities.

Although the sacred nature of many of these holy places in Israel derives from Jewish roots, over the centuries our daughter religions were able to assert their claims to the sites over the claims of the numerically and politically weaker Jewish community. Despite this, the Land of Israel and its holy sites continued to play an important role in the religious and spiritual life of our people. Our ancestors never gave up their claim to these sacred locations.

In the 4th century CE, shortly after Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, which at that time included the Land of Israel, the rabbis reasserted our claim to our holy sites. In Midrash Genesis Rabba, a collection of expositions on the Book of Genesis, our sages declare that three places in the land of Israel belong to the people of Israel by the right of purchase: The site of the Temple in Jerusalem, the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and the Grave of Joseph in Shechem (Genesis Rabba 79,7). In the Midrash, our sages cite the biblical verses that support their claim. They remind us that the site of the Temple was purchased by David from Ornan the Jebusite shortly after David's conquest of Jerusalem (I Chronicles 21:25), that Joseph was buried on land purchased by his father Jacob in Shechem (Genesis 23:19) and, as we read in the Torah portion, Haye Sarah, that Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite for Sarah's burial place (Genesis 23:16).

Sadly, right now, all three locations are points of anger and conflict in the current struggle in the Mid-East. Hebron, the site of the Cave of Machpelah, is torn between a small group of Jewish hotheads who boldly assert Jewish claims to the tomb and the radicalized, predominately Muslim, Arab community in whose midst they live. Several weeks ago, the shrine of the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus (biblical Shechem), was torn down -- stone by stone -- by a crowd of Moslem Arabs. In Jerusalem, Ariel Sharon's ill-conceived visit to the Temple Mount to underscore his commitment to Jewish claims was seized by the Palestinian leadership as an opportunity to motivate the Palestinians into active conflict.

As a professor of mine once said, in the Mid-East, when people get angry at each other, they don't "go hysteric," they "go historic" and recall with frightening detail all actual and perceived assaults they have suffered and pain they have endured. The power of these litanies of suffering all too often makes it difficult for those involved in the conflict to acknowledge the presence of the others, to hear their pain, and to negotiate an honorable resolution.

As intractable as these ancient problems may seem, going historic can be a source of hope as well as despair. From our past, we can see that at those moments when both parties in a dispute are brought beyond their own isolating sense of righteous indignation and come to understand each other, all are blessed.

Almost prophetically, the Torah portion Hayey Sarah, which begins with Abraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for Sarah's burial, concludes with the note that at the time of Abraham's death, his long estranged two sons, Isaac, the ancestor of the Jews, and Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arabs, reconcile and jointly see to the proper burial of their father in the family tomb (Genesis 25:9). Immediately following this verse, the Torah informs us that God blesses Isaac (verse 11) and that God's promise to Ishmael that he would become the ancestor of a mighty nation is fulfilled (verse 12-18).

In times of conflict and struggle, our hearts naturally go out to our brothers and sisters in Israel. We pray for their safety, security and well-being. But as we look beyond the present troubles and try, in spite of all, to see a better world, the teachings in the portion Hayey Sarah can be a source of hope and inspiration. On the one hand, this Torah portion underscores our people's ancient connection to the Land of Israel. On the other hand, it testifies to the equally ancient insight that blessings abound when sacred sites are open to all who revere and respect them. May this ancient wisdom soon become a contemporary reality, not only in the Land of Israel, but throughout the world, wherever people of faith meet.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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