Chayyei Sarah: Cities of Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayyei Sarah

Sarah died in Kiriath-arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. . . (Bereshit 23:2)

At the beginning of this weeks’ parsha, Sarah, Avraham’s wife, dies near Hevron [Hebron] and Avraham goes to great lengths to purchase a burial site for her. This became known as the Cave of the Machpelah, or “doubled cave,” where according to the Torah all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs- except for Rachel- were buried.

Today, there is a building over those caves which house a mosque and a synagogue- parts of this shrine date from the medieval period, if not earlier. Surrounding the Machpelah is a city of about 120,000 people, mostly Arab, with a small Jewish settlement in the heart of the city. Just outside Hevron is a much larger Jewish town, Kiryat-Arba, mentioned in the verse above and now a busy community of thousands.

I was last in Hevron in 1998, and it was a confusing experience. I was thrilled to be in the places where Avraham walked, and being in the Machpelah helped me understand and truly feel the Jewish history embedded in that sacred place. On the other hand, Hevron is the center of much controversy: the Jewish enclave in the heart of the city was surrounded by barbed wire and guards and relations between the Jewish residents and their Arab neighbors was tense, at best, with violence a regular occurrence.

As far as I know, the basic dynamics in Hevron haven’t changed much in the past 12 years, and while there are, of course, widely differing narratives and claims on the city, my point today is a simple one: it’s easy when reading the Torah to imagine holy sites, connected to our ancestors, and feel that deep connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, our historic homeland. It’s much harder to remember that the holy sites of the Torah are today places where real people live complicated lives. There is the eternal Hevron, the site of Avraham’s purchase from Ephron the Hittite, and there is the earthly Hevron, where conflict between Avraham’s children is exacerbated by poor leadership and fiery extremism on both sides.

To make this distinction is not to give up any claim or belief; it is simply to acknowledge that history produces complex outcomes, and rights should sometimes be exercised with wisdom. I have my personal perspectives on the situation in Hevron, but I’d rather you found your own, and you might start at this page, put together by rabbinical students for the purpose of helping people understand  various aspects of the city. The site creators have their own leanings (everybody does), but you’ll find links to various Jewish and Arab websites and sources of information, along with divrei Torah and text resources here.

My prayer is that someday soon, all of Avraham’s children will celebrate in Hevron- and all across the world- in peace and joy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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