Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Chaye Sarah Love of the Land of Israel -Ahuzat Kever

Chaye Sarah     Love of the Land of Israel  -Ahuzat Kever

            One of my teachers of Jewish history pointed out something very telling about the history of Jewish settlements.
            What was the one act which defined the establishment of a new Jewish community? Was it building a synagogue? Was it a school? No.
            The one thing that defined the establishment of a living Jewish community-was a cemetery.
            Afterall, a minyan could be held in anyone’s house, and so could a school. But , when someone died, he or she had to be buried in a plot of land designated for a Jewish cemetery.
            Thus, today’s Torah portion opens up, as we call it, “ Chayei Sarah”- the life of Sarah, by which we mean, the death of Sarah. Abraham must now acquire “ achuzat  kever” , a piece of land, where he can place the remains of his beloved Sarah. Thus, we learn, in the Torah reading of his negotiations and his purchase of “ maarat hamachpelah”, The double Cave or Cave of Machpelah.
It is at this moment, in buying the land for 400 shekel, that Abraham gains a legal and lawful foothold in what was Eretz Canaan, the Land of Canaan, and will , in the future be called            “ Eretz Yisarel”, the Land of Israel.
            Note that from the first chapters about Abraham, he is promised that this land will be his and his children’s. Nevertheless, he does not take a foothold by force, but,at this moment, makes his presence in the land permanent, by acquiring a cemetery for his family. It is from this moment on, in history, that we, as Jews, can say we have a claim to the land of Israel.
            We ask the question-How strong is Jewish affection for Israel?
            The historic love of the land of Israel by the people of the land of Israel is unique in the annals of human history.
            A my great-great grandfather  displayed that love when in 1881, at the age of 81, he gave each one of his sons a set of leather bound Talmud, and he and my great-great grandmother packed up their key belongings, left the Shtetl of Dolina in Galicia and set off to Israel, to the city of Tsfat, Safed, the city of mystics.
            At the exact same time, in a different civilization, empire, culture, my wife's great-great grandfather abandoned his home city of Sana, Yemen, and made his way to Jerusalem. The house, of Jerusalem stone, which he built then, still stands.
            Both, from different corners of the earth and different cultures, were involved in Zionism  before there was a Zionism , a year before the first modern Zionist movement, Bilu, and 16 years before the First Zionist Congress.
             I mention this in particular to help us keep in mind that Zion is older than Zionism.
            Someone once asked me “Just how deep is our connection to the land of Israel over these centuries.”
 After all, we speak of two thousand years of exile. Even the Zionist hymn, the Hatikvah speaks of  “ tikvatenu bat shnot aloayim”-Our two-thousand year old hope”.
  Early church doctrine, from ancient to modern times, has always dated our expulsion from the land of Israel with the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. Arab propaganda against Israel has always claimed that we Jews are Johnny come lately to the land, having arrived, for the most part since from the 1917, the Day of Infamy for Palestinians, the day of the Balfour declaration. In fact, in their claim, there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount( even though their tradition contradict that claim).
We have fallen victim to our competition's advertising.
            So what have Jews been doing about and with  the land of Israel for the past two thousand years, besides dreaming?
            Obviously, we have done an awful lot of praying. We have been praying for our crops in the land of Israel, even while we sat in Poland, Persia, Peking, Pakistan or Pategonia--whether we were farmers, cattle ranchers, craftsmen, money-lenders, or physicians. We may not have known what a fresh blade of wheat looked like in the ghetto of Venice or the meilah of Casablanca--but we prayed for rain in its time from Shmini Atzeret till the second day of Pesah, and we counted the Omer, the days of the wheat harvest till Shavuot.
            We constantly declared in our prayers "Ve techezena"-May our eyes witness your Return unto Zion in mercy " or  "tolicheynu kommemiut leartzenu”-Bring us, upright, proudly, to our land". Every wedding included a reminder of the land and Temple long lost.
            There was also the longing for the land, in the form of poetry, such as that of Rabbi Judah Halevy--Libi bamizrach, veani besof maarav yoshev
            "My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west--how can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?"
            Could such longing for the land, implanted from the mother's milk, fail to have its impact?
            But dreams alone are not enough, nor are prayers. I am sure that there is many an American Indian who dreams of Manhattan Island once again. Our dreams,alone, are not sufficient to justify our claim over and against others living in the land of Israel. Rather, there is the fact of the constant Jewish settlement of the land of Israel.
            First and above all else, we did not disappear from the land of Israel with the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, quite contrary to the teachings of the Christian Church and Arab propagandists.
            It is true, that with the fall of the Temple in the war with Rome, we lost our sovereignty, we lost our Temple, and we were nearly destroyed, but we still did not vanish. Within a few years, we had established academies and new communities, and within 50 years, we were numerous enough again, to threaten the Roman empire.
             In the land of Israel, we ran our own affairs, had a Rabbi as official Prince, recognized by Rome, we built ornate synagogues, we edited the Mishnah , the ground book of Jewish law,  we arranged the siddur, our order of prayer,  we created our Midrash, the basis of Jewish thought, and we debated the Palestinian Talmud.  We formulated our edition of  the Torah and the Bible--with all the vowel sounds and musical cantillation that have become universal standards for Jews today. All this in the land of Israel.
            All this creativity  took place in a land and time, in which we were led to believe--we weren't there.
            It was only the repeated wars of conquest--first Persian, then Byzantine, then the Arab conquest and finally the Crusades that finally robbed the land of Israel of its Jews.
            Yet, Jews never truly left-- as soon as times permitted, Jews made their way back to the land of Israel. Saladin, the Moslem hero, welcomed Jews back to settle with open arms. Rabbis and scholars made their way back to pray at the base of the Western Wall, yet others came back to work and live their.
            When in 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, a great number of Jews form Spain and Portugal made their way to the land of Israel. We were welcomed with open arms by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who saw in us excellent resources for his expanded empire.
            Once again, it was the land of Israel which was home for Jewish creativity--our basis of Jewish law and custom--the Shulkhan Aruch ,was created in Eretz Yisrael. Our Jewish dreams and fantasies, the kabbalah, received their shape in the mysticism of Safed.
            The Jewish return to the land of Israel never ceased. In the 1700's , an entire Hasidic community moved en masse, to the land of Israel. Never was the land of Israel empty of the people Israel--there is, till today, one family, in the village of Pekiin, in the Galilee, that have never left the land for these past 2000 years.
            So much, though for past history. What of today?
            Obviously, we know , that it is equally true , that Jews have existed in Diaspora, in dispersal, outside the land of Israel, even while the first Temple still stood. We are, by inclination, a people , as Haman would describe us, “mefuzar umeforad  bechol haamim”--a people scattered and dispersed among all the peoples. That is our temperament-- yet, for all the dispersal, the heart, in Rabbi Yehudah Halevy's words, was always there.
            So from Abraham’s purchase of a plot of ground to bury his wife Sarah to our day, there is an ongoing connection to the land of Israel.

            In a few weeks, it will have been 75 years since Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, which is considered the start of the Holocaust.            Just ten years later, after the devastation of European Jewry , the State of Israel was born. That is the difference in time from desperation to rebirth. Look at how our Jewish world has changed with the return to Israel. Let us now ever and always bind our well being and our future with that of the people of Israel, through our words, and through our deeds. 

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