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Remember me as a Time of Day

Chayei Sarah / 5783

November 22, 2022

My wife Diana and I have recently been working on our wills, as in our last will and testament. It’s a morbid thing to think about, and it’s very strange to put on paper our wishes for the end of our lives, but it is, of course, necessary, especially now that we have a child. As part of the process, we filled out a long questionnaire on the attorney’s website, about matters as large as where our assets will go and as small as who will feed our cats after we pass. Maybe that’s not actually a small thing, I don’t know, ask Diana. 

One of the questions on the list led to a number of interesting conversations between Diana and me. What did we want to happen to our bodies after we died? 

Jewish tradition makes this answer obvious in some ways, in that we both knew that we wanted to be buried in the ground, with the goal of returning to the earth, as our Torah teaches in Bereishit, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”* Indeed, many halakhic authorities consider in-ground burial to be a mitzvah d’oraita – a biblical command, though, as Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky discusses in his teshuva on alternative burial methods, it may actually be a rabbinic command, and even what “in-ground burial” means is subject to debate.**

On one issue, though, all of the sages agree: we must treat the dead with honor and respect, and we must avoid bizayon, disgrace. But what is the best way to pay respect to our loved ones and ancestors? 

Diana and I ultimately agreed about a burial site for us: the green section of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, called “Nature’s Sanctuary,” where all bodies are buried in naturally biodegradable caskets, shrouds, or urns. All graves are hand-dug to avoid the environmental impact of heavy machinery, and goats prowl the premises a few times a year to mow the lush greenery. And rather than tombstones covering the site, there are trees, wildflowers, and rolling fields.***

Although we are both confident in our choice to have an “eco-burial,” a choice that we feel is consistent with both the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, I admit that I felt some pause at the idea of not having a physical marker above my burial site. The gravestone is a place where loved ones can visit, can spend time, can bring a gift, can commune with the soul of the deceased. How would my children and grandchildren come to see me when my body was gone from this world? 

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with our patriarch Abraham making this very decision on behalf of his wife, Sarah, who dies in the opening verse of the portion. How will he honor his beloved and ensure that she is treated with dignity, even beyond her years on earth? He negotiates with the local villagers of Chevron to purchase a cave, at full price, in which he may bury her. And so the cave of Machpelah becomes the first burial site of our matriarchs and patriarchs, later to become the final resting home of Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob. Nearly all of our holy biblical ancestors lie in this one special place.

I have had multiple opportunities to visit modern-day Chevron and the location that has, since at least the time of King Herod, been defined as the original Cave of Machpelah. Throughout history, a synagogue, a mosque, and a church have all sat in that space, demonstrating its holiness to all three Abrahamic faiths. And it is indeed holy. I felt deep emotion the first time that I davened in the tiny prayer spaces dedicated to each ancestor. I felt a profound sense of connection to history and to this particular family that birthed the Jewish people. For these reasons, I am grateful that a physical site exists, connecting me with the past and inspiring me for the future of Judaism.

But holy sites are, inevitably, tense sites, and like every other site holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there has been conflict. Chevron, I am sad to say, has been home to some of the bloodiest conflict in the region. 

Just outside Chevron, which is now the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, sits a Jewish settlement called Kiryat Arba. In the middle of Kiryat Arba, there is another grave –  the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, an American Jew who, on Purim day in 1994 entered the Muslim side of the Cave of Machpelah and opened fire on worshippers, killing 29 people and injuring another 125 before being killed by the crowd. This man has been defined by the Israeli government and by the international community as a terrorist and a mass murderer. The political party of which Goldstein was a member, Kach, and its leader, Meir Kahane, were outlawed and banished from Israeli government.

And yet, Goldstein’s grave still sits as a monument in Kiryat Arba. His tombstone reads, “He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land.” A verse from psalms adorns the memorial: “Niki chapayim u-var leivav – clean hands and a pure heart.” 

Despite attempts by the Israeli government to demolish this monument, Goldstein’s devotees have maintained it, and groups of Jewish extremists visit regularly to pay their respects. I was distraught two weeks ago when one of those extremists, a person who used to have a large portrait of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room, was re-elected to Israel’s Knesset. He is expected to be a part of Netanyahu’s new government and will likely receive the Public Safety Ministry, overseeing the whole Israeli police force. 

Goldstein’s massacre was not the first act of extreme violence in Chevron. Back in 1929, an Arab mob committed a horrifying massacre against the local Jewish population, killing their own neighbors in brutal ways. As descendants of the survivors of this massacre have noted, many members of the community were saved by other Arab residents who hid their Jewish neighbors in basements and backrooms, away from the violent mob. Attacks on the Jewish community grew over the next few years, though, leading nearly all of the Jews to leave Chevron in the 1930s. 

Jewish settlers returned to the embattled city in 1968, after the Six-Day War, and more violence ensued as Palestinians and Israelis vied for control of this holy site. A Palestinian terrorist dropped a grenade on the stairway leading up the Jewish section of worship. A mob destroyed Torah scrolls and prayer books on Yom Kippur. And since the 1994 massacre, which occurred in the context of the Oslo Peace Accords and the fear that Jewish control of Chevron would not be part of the final peace deal, the situation in the city has remained dire. The waqf, or Islamic charitable trust, that now controls most of the site maintains a fragile peace, while the IDF patrols the surrounding areas with an iron fist. Jews are not allowed access to the Muslim area, which houses the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca – except for 10 special days a year, days on which Palestinian residents of the area are not allowed to leave their homes. One of those days is Shabbat Chayei Sarah, when tens of thousands of Jews from around the world travel to Chevron to visit and to pay their respects to our ancestors. This weekend has all-too-often become a time of violence and mayhem, and I am afraid to read the news tomorrow about what this year’s Shabbat will bring. 

There is so much more to say about Chevron, and its context in the ongoing and heartbreaking conflict, and I can’t tackle all of it in one dvar Torah. But every year, when Chayei Sarah rolls around, I think back to those two gravesites in Chevron and Kiryat Arba, and I wonder about what it means to honor the deceased. I wonder what the purpose of a grave really is. Are we, as human beings, actually just asserting our power over physical space, even in our deaths? Is our desire to be loved and honored once we are gone a recipe for others to fight about our legacy? To whom do the dead belong, and to whom does the earth belong? 

For the millions who perished in the Holocaust, there was never an opportunity for a physical grave. When I spent ten days in Poland in high school, the happiest days were the days on which we visited Jewish cemeteries – places that marked the normal course of Jewish life and death, not the horrendous cutting-short that happened in the Shoah. When I was in Lithuania, I saw the staircases built by the Soviet government out of Jewish tombstones – on their way to and from work in government office buildings, people would trample upon the Hebrew names engraved underfoot. There are many ways to disrespect the memory of the deceased. But what is the right way to respect it? How can we remember Sarah and Abraham in a way that lifts up their status as the mother and father of three very different peoples? 

I yearn for a day when the many children of Sarah and Abraham can mourn together in peace, praying each in their own way at the holy cave. But I don’t see that day coming anytime soon. Given the spate of terror attacks throughout the West Bank, and the increasing number of attacks by Israeli settlers, I worry that this site of honoring the dead has turned into a shame on all of us and on our religion of peace. Honor has turned into bizayon, disgrace. I wonder whether we would do better to focus our energies on remembering Abraham and Sarah not through their physical presence, but through this book that we read, week after week, year after year, again and again – retelling the stories of the family that started it all. 

At the West Laurel Hill Cemetery, there is a wall near the natural sanctuary with plaques for each of the people buried there. There is a physical marker for each of the deceased, and I am comforted in knowing that my loved ones will be able to go there to remember me. But when I die and become part of the earth that causes grasses to grow and flowers to bloom, I hope that no one ever feels a need to lay claim to the land on which I am buried. I hope that my legacy is not in the ground, but in the minds and the hearts of the people who knew me, and that, when they tell my story, they tell a story of peace and of growth. Shabbat shalom.

 

 

* Genesis 3:19.

** Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, “Alternative Kevura Methods.” https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/alternative-burial.pdf

*** For more information about the Laurel Hill Cemetery, see https://laurelhillphl.com/cemetery-funeral-offerings/green/

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