This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground. Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968. This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this: Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it. Therefore, it’s ours, always. Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers. This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularly subjected.
I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar: even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael. I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages. This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.
The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan. Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim.
The law further fleshes out that these cities served as refuge for people who had acted violently and recklessly, but not with premeditation. Premeditated murder merits no refuge, while completely freakish, accidental death that the perpetrator could not have reasonably prevented does not need refuge. The base line of civil society is public safety and the Torah here recognizes that it is reckless but not premeditated behavior that poses the most dangerous threat to society – that when people act irresponsibly and cause other people’s death, it is very hard to prevent it from spiraling into a cycle of violence, as the mourners hunt down the perpetrator to carry out vigilante revenge, and on and on. Reckless manslaughterers need to be removed from the community to nip the cycle of violence in the bud.
But there, in the city of refuge, they are able to rebuild their lives and we have a bizarrely utopian image of a city that represents the possibility of peaceful and civil co-existence which is populated entirely by scattered reckless manslaughterers integrated into resident Levites. Levites, of course, understand violence and slaughter very well through their work around the animals in the Temple, and through their brutal history of bloodshed avenging Dina’s rape and the Golden Calf idolaters, but who have learned to direct their aggression toward service and not destruction. In Cities of Refuge, people most prone to extreme behavior co-exist and model to each other and to all of us that aggression and recklessness need not be the end of the story.
The 20th chapter of Sefer Yehoshua tells us that upon conquering the land, Yehoshua, in fact, did appoint those cities and that Hebron was one of the 3 cities of refuge west of the Jordan River, along with Qedesh in the north and Shekhem in the center.
Why Hebron? Well, it doesn’t say, but another thing we know about Hebron is that prior to Bnei Yisrael’s entry to the land, Hebron was a city dominated by giants. The Torah relates in Bemidbar about the scouts’ trip through the land:
“And they went up into the Negev, and came to Hebron, and there, Ahiman, Sheishai, and Talmay, of the giants” (Bem. 13:22),
וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן וְשָׁם אֲחִימַן שֵׁשַׁי וְתַלְמַי יְלִידֵי הָעֲנָק
This fact was preyed upon by the scouts mere verses later, as they stirred up panic among their fellow Israelites with their reports that, among other things, “We saw giants there” — וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם.
How did the Israelites relate to these giants? There’s an interesting textual peculiarity in the description of Hebron: וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן. We translated this above ambiguously as “they went up into the Negev, and came to Hebron”, but really, it says that “they went up into the Negev, and he came to Hebron.” One verb, ויעלו, is plural, as expected – they went up — but the second verb, strangely, is singular: not ויבאו, but ויבא, not “they came”, but “he came”.
The gemara in Sotah (34b) resolves this problem, saying that Caleb alone went to Hebron to pray to be saved from the corrosive counsel of the other scouts. He went to pray at the burial site of our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, etc., asking his deceased forbears and role models to help him pray for mercy that he not fall prey to the counsel of the other scouts.
אמר רבא: מלמד, שפירש כלב מעצת מרגלים והלך ונשתטח על קברי אבות, אמר להן: אבותי, בקשו עלי רחמים שאנצל מעצת מרגלים.
They all ascended to the Negev; Caleb, already troubled by the faithless, aggressive, and presumptuous group-think of the other scouts, broke off, ran ahead to Hebron to engage in personal centering in order best to perform his true role as a scout, the spiritual activism of preparing the people with useful information for sustainable living in Eretz Yisrael, untainted by fanatical fear-mongering. In addition to explaining the grammatical peculiarity, this text also fleshes out a picture of the making of Caleb as a figure of resistance, as well as filling out why it is that later, in the book of Yehoshua (14–15), Caleb receives the Hebron environs as his land allotment
A few interesting things should be noted in this midrash:
1) Caleb ran ahead of the pack himself to Hebron, meaning that the scouts had not yet encountered any giants, yet had already unified to reject the possibility of a safe future in the land. Physically scary, violent, aggressive bullies – the giants – were used as a post-facto excuse for the pre-existing defeatist, group-think of another group of aggressive bullies, the scouts. Fantasies about inevitable barriers of violence can exist quite vibrantly independent of corroborating evidence.
2) Where did Caleb go to get that help? Hebron. The city whose politics were dominated by scary, giant bogeymen and the place associated with death – where our matriarchs and patriarchs lay buried. He went to the belly of the beast. The scout who understood the problem of the violent extremist giants the best – Caleb, who witnessed them all alone – was the one able to understand the problem in context and not blow it perversely out of proportion.
The 11th chapter of Yehoshua tells that among the Israelites’ military victories in conquering the land of Israel was Yehoshua’s defeat of these giants in Hebron. Only afterward could cities of refuge be established. People who set their identity on being violent bullies are an obstacle to safety and civil society and need to be defeated. But they are not everyone and they are not the whole story. Much violence in our world is of the reckless variety, when some people do not totally think through the consequences of their actions, others respond vengefully, and then everyone is caught in what Yehuda Amichai evocatively called the big Had Gadya machine, the endless cycle of violence. The cities of refuge tell us to stop – that it doesn’t need to be that way, and Hebron is meant to be one of our beacons of this anti-violent ethic. Entire cities of people who know violence intimately can build a model city where violence goes to stop, where people immersed in authentic stories of panic and rage can go, live next door to other people immersed in their own authentic stories of panic and rage and all stop and calm down.
Yehoshua chose Hebron, the most famous cemetery in the region, as if to emphasize further: the finality of death should sober us to see our joint destination, not arouse proprietary jealousy. Yehoshua chose Hebron, as if to say that a city known from time immemorial for the thug violence of giant extremists is precisely the place where, in a redeemed realpolitik, cycles of violence must go to stop. Refuge, peace, and civil society start in Hebron.