Israel, Religion

Project Hayei Sarah

Hebron changed my life. I may have been a run of the mill peacenik and an ordinary Jew before summer 2004. I have never been free of that place since. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nuanced and complicated, where both sides are mutually at fault. But Hebron’s situation has become an abomination, a situation where we’re absolutely at fault for an unnecessary and unacceptable blight.
Annually on the occasion of reading the portion Heyei Sarah from the Torah (Genesis 23:1–25:18), a growing number of us tell what Hebron is really like. We’ve spoken in synagogues, every major rabbinical seminary, indie minyans, and community centers. And this year, we’ve posted 14 of our Torah sermons to YouTube in order to show the world that Hebron and Chayei Sarah does not belong only to the settlers. Indeed, a thousand will converge there this weekend.
It is precisely because Hebron is such an hopeless place to behold that creating inspirational meaning — as these 14 voices have — is so hopeful. There are no trite answers in their mouths, but oh so many aspirations. Hebron presently is so low and devoid of holiness, that it feels there is only up to go. And here in these testimonials you will hear both the shock and the rage, but also the hope and determination for a better future for Hebron, for Jews, and for Palestinians.
Organizations listed for identification purposes only. See them all on Facebook and YouTube.
Drew Cohen is a teacher of Jewish Studies and Music in a transdenominational high school in the US:

Alana Alpert is a community organizer and a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College:

Moriel Rothman is a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow, and is active with Rabbis for Human Rights:

Ben Murane is the director of New Generations, the New Israel Fund’s 20’s and 30’s activist community, and the co-publisher of the blog

11 thoughts on “Project Hayei Sarah

  1. when I lived in Jerusalem after high school for about 6 months i secretly went to Hebron a few times. I say secretly because going to the west bank on the program I was on was strictly forbidden and had anyone found out i would have been sent home. I didn’t even tell my closest friends. At the time I was squarely in the center, politically, moving more towards the left every day. I felt then, and I still believe today, that Jews should be able to live in any part of our historic homeland (and I do hope that when Palestine is established they allow Jews to be citizens of their state), I will never forget the excitement of seeing ma’arat makhpelah for the first time and i’ll likewise never bustling scene of the open-air bazaar. this was a few years before the second intifada, Palestinians had free movement throughout the west bank, and while Jews and Palestinians didn’t get along, it was markedly different than today. I did not return to Israel for around ten years, and it changed immensely in that time, on both sides of the ‘green line.’ even more startling than seeing Hevron for the first time, was going back with Breaking the Silence. a once bustling city was desolate. the bazaar became bizarre. it was blocked off by giant concrete blocks, with the calls of vendors a dusty memory of the recent past — centuries (maybe millenia) of history erased. the doors of apartments formerly owned by Palestinians were now welded shut with להרוג ערבים “kill arabs” spraypainted on the metal doors. windows shattered and burned out, and fences built around existing balconies. a shocking sight by any measure. this was the same year Project Hayei Sarah was founded, and I was at some of those first meetings. I only hope that this project not only brings education to the Jewish communities of America, but also brings healing to a broken city. May we one day see a vibrant Hevron worthy of its history of a city which is a historic home to both Jews and Palestinians. As KFJ said, seeing Hevron changed my life — both the first time and the last time, but for much different reasons. Good luck, PHS.

  2. The Tomb and the Well
    By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
    From the book, THE TENT OF ABRAHAM (Beacon, 2006) that I co-authored with a Benedictine nun and a Sufi teacher):
    The story of Abraham’s death ascribes power to two places, a tomb and a well:
    Now these are the days and the years of Avraham, which he lived:
    A hundred years and seventy years and five years, then he expired. Yitzchak [“Laughing One”] and Yishmael [“God hearkens”] his sons buried him in the cave of Makhpelah [“Twofold”] in the field that Abraham had acquired There were buried Abraham and Sarah his wife.
    Now it was after Abraham’s death, that God blessed Isaac his son. And Yitzhak sat by the Well of the Living-One Who-Sees-Me. (Gen. 25: 7-8a, 9-11.)
    The tomb is “acquired”; at the well, one “sits” and “is seen.” Let us explore the meanings of these forms of life.
    Almost the entire story of this tomb is about its acquisition. When Sarah died, Abraham bargained with Ephron the Hittite precisely to acquire the Cave of Makhpelah, lest it come to him purely as a gift. From Genesis 23: 3 to 23: 18, we hear about the dickering; then in one verse we learn that Abraham buried Sarah there, and in two verses — Gen. 25: 9-10 — we learn that Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham there.
    In modern times, this acquisition has been cited as a model and prototype for Jewish ownership of the entire Land of Israel.
    But on deeper reflection, this understanding is perplexing. Avraham began his bargaining by making clear that he is a ger v’toshav imakhem, a “sojourner-settler with you.” He is not normally entitled to own land as a permanent holding for generations to come. He needs a special dispensation in order to acquire this property.
    This is exactly the same formula with which YHWH explained in Leviticus 25: 23 that the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Israelites are “gerim v’toshavim . . . imadi” – “sojourners-settlers with Me.”
    So Abraham was the model sojourner-settler, and his offspring were to learn that in this very land they are not to be owners but sojourners-settlers. Yet he acquired this particular piece of land, beyond reclaim. He did with this piece of land exactly what the God of Torah says must not be done – and yet the Torah approves his acquisition.
    How come? What is this “acquisition” for?
    A grave. As if only the dead can “own” land; the living simply sojourn on God’s land.
    Owning rigidifies what had been fluid. Death rigidifies what had been fluid.
    Let us take a moment to absorb this — to breathe in this idea, to do exactly what the dead can never do: Breathe in.
    Breathe —–
    And now we turn to the other aspect of the story. Isaac and Ishmael survived their dangerous father. Isaac went to live at the “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.”
    Where did this Well come from? — It was the fluid, flowing well through which “God hearkened” and saved his brother Ishmael’s life, turning his name into a reality. (Gen. 16: 7-14 and Gen. 21: 19)
    Hagar was the first of the Biblical figures to be connected with a well. It was revealed to her while she was still pregnant with the unborn Ishmael, and she named it “Be’er Lachai Ro’i, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” (Gen. 16 for this whole episode.)
    When Hagar and Ishmael were driven out of the family, driven into the desert, they had one skin-full of water between them. It soon ran out, and they began to die of thirst.
    So Hagar cast her son beneath a bush – a tiny oasis whose roots must have gone deep to find a source of water. She hopes the bush will keep the sun from scorching him. (The “casting” is from “tashlich,” the word that means not throwing trash away but, like Jonah when God cast him into the sea, means being placed where the future can be transformed.)
    Hagar closed her eyes, for she was unwilling to see her son die.
    She cried, and her eyes poured tears into the earth.
    And then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water that she gave to Ishmael (Gen. 21).
    Surely this was once again the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, which she had first seen years before when her own body could give Ishmael his nourishment.
    And surely it was her tears themselves, falling into the earth, that gave rise to this wellspring.
    Perhaps Hagar closed her eyes not in resignation but in a direct challenge:
    Refusing to see her son so as to force God to see him — to open the Well of Seeing that she had seen so many years before. And so God does.
    Refusing to hear her son so as to force God to hear him as she had been promised long ago.
    And indeed God Heard and saved their lives, watering their future as Hagar’s eyes had watered earth and God’s own self. “Va’yishma elohim!” “Yishma’el” becomes his name in fact as well as in truth.
    It is there that after the mourning the father who had endangered both his sons, the son of Hagar (“The Stranger”) can live at last with the son of Sarah (“Queen”).
    And what does Isaac do? Vayeshev, he sat there. (Gen. 25: 11) He did not need to wander, he did not need to own. Like a practitioner of Zen, he sat.
    He let YHWH see him. YHWH — Whose name may mean the Breath of Life, or the One Who Makes Being to Be, or the Moebius strip of Past/Present/ Future, or all these — is the Living One Who sees.
    If we the living give up our attachment to the rigidity of acquiring, we can sit calmly to drink at the flowing wells of vision.
    The burial of Abraham harked back to the story of Sarah’s death. She died just after the naming of another sacred place of Seeing: Abraham names the mountain where he bound Isaac for sacrifice “YHWH Sees.” According to Jewish tradition, though it is not specified in the Hebrew Bible, this place was long afterward, where the Temple was built and burned, built and burned again.
    And today it is one of those sacred places whose “ownership” has swallowed many deaths.
    For to “own” can itself become deadly. The more we want ourselves to be filled with life, the more we must celebrate the flow of holiness.
    Many years ago, the Jewish sages decreed this place not one we are supposed to physically inhabit, but a place we are supposed to physically avoid. We taught ourselves that our most sacred place is one we do not “own” and cannot even put our foot on.
    Why? Because we might inadvertently step into that space where once there was the Holy of Holies, the deepest inner aspect of the Temple. Why not do this? Because the Holy of Holies itself was a place to be entered only by one person for one moment every year; the High Priest, at noon on Yom Kippur.
    Our non-ownership was holy. This was a radical critique of idolatry. It teaches in space – don’t try to own it! — what Shabbat teaches in time.
    This wisdom of not-owning and of staying off the Temple Mount in effect expanded the Holy of Holies, defining the entire Temple Mount as the Holy of Holies and Mashiach, Messiah, as the one “high priest” who could someday enter it.
    Of course we cannot do without land altogether. We are creatures of body, who at our healthiest must have a Land to “sit” in, a well to drink from, a brother or sister to see us. How can this be done without “acquiring” the Land?
    By sojourning and sitting, like father Abraham and Tante Hagar, and like Isaac when God came at last to bless him.
    How do we “sit”? By treating the land with loving respect, living not on its back but beside its well of life, encouraging its flow instead of draining its wetlands, or pouring poison in its rivers, or using scarce water for swimming pools instead of Tante Hagar’s kitchen.
    For exile, alienation, estrangement, cannot be solved by acquiring, possessing, owning — by rigidity. It can only be eased by acknowledging that possessiveness is itself a form of exile. By letting the water trickle through our fingers.
    And by letting the water trickle through our eyes. Through grief.
    The grief of two brothers at their father’s grave is connected with the grief that Hagar and Ishmael had felt so many years and tears before. There was a reason that Isaac moved directly from his father’s grave to the well where tears had given life.
    The tears came from opening the eyes to see the truth, and the open eyes came straight from God.
    Indeed, the Well of Seeing stood alongside a Mount of Seeing and the grief that poured forth there as well.
    For when Abraham took an even more direct hand in threatening the life of his other son, Yitzchak; when at the last moment Abraham heard a messenger from God commanding him to let the boy live — he too lifted his eyes, he too saw.
    Ishmael had been dying of thirst, and Hagar saw a well. Isaac was on the point of death from ritual slaughter, and Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket. He offered up the ram instead.
    Just as Hagar had named the well for Seeing, Abraham named the place “YHWH Sees” and it became known as the Mountain of YHWH Seeing (Gen. 21).
    And there were tears at Isaac’s mountain as there were at Ishmael’s well. For Jewish tradition remarked that the Isaac who later in the Torah is so blind that he cannot distinguish his two sons from each other did not become so blind from olden age. His eyes were scalded, blinded, by the tears of the angels above him at the Mount of Seeing. Tears falling from their eyes into his own.
    These stories are obviously intertwined and echoed. In our generation, some have suggested that this echo is meant to convey that God’s test of Abraham in regard to Isaac emerges from Abraham’s behavior toward Ishmael. He expressed concern, but not conviction, when the moment came to spare Ishmael his ordeal. And so he himself had to create the ordeal for his other son. Not just the stories but the fates of the two sons are intertwined.
    The fullness of the prophecy that Ishmael will ultimately live facing all his brothers was not lived out until after Abraham, the father who would have allowed both sons to die from his own actions, has himself died.
    That was when Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him (Genesis 25: 9-11). Indeed, only in this passage are they named together as “Abraham’s sons,” as if to teach us that they became truly his sons — and together — only by joining in their grief (or relief? or both?)
    Only after that are they able to live face to face with each other; only then the prophecy comes true in which Ishmael is to live “facing all his brothers.” (Gen. 25: 18).
    The two are able to live together after they have mourned the most dangerous and threatening person in their lives.
    Now — what does this weave of text and midrash have to say about today, about grief, about mourning, about the lethal violence between the two families of Abraham in our own generation?
    First, I think it teaches us to look at our similarities, not only at our differences.
    This is hard to do with our enemies. We would mostly rather describe them as utterly different from ourselves.
    But if we swallow hard and try this, we can begin with the most basic: Both peoples claim, and in fact have, a strong relationship with the land between the Jordan and the Sea.
    And some within both peoples often fall into denying the other’s claim and connection because it is so painful to realize that others love and are beloved of that same land, and because both peoples fear that recognizing the other’s claim and connection would delegitimate its own.
    In the last century, both peoples have experienced disastrous abuses of their peoplehoods – the Shoah (Destruction), the Naqba (Disaster). We do not have to measure one against the other to know that each left deep wounds and scars, yet unresolved, on the soul of each people.
    And so we see that two abused peoples, still suffering, are thrown into conflict with each other. For each, an act that seems defensive in its own eyes is seen as abusive by the other people.
    Each grieves its own dead, killed at the other’s hands.
    We might draw a lesson from the shared grief of Isaac and Ishmael, and the release it gave them to face each other. Can Jews and Palestinians together share feelings of grief about the deaths of members of our two peoples at the hands of the other — at the hands of those who are dangerous and threatening to each of our peoples?
    I suggest that Jewish groups express publicly their grief at all these deaths, and that Arab or Muslim groups do the same. Where joint ceremonies cannot be arranged, let them do this separately.
    And where even this cannot be arranged, where one community or congregation will not agree to mourn the dead of another, let those who will mourn the dead of the other go ahead to do so.
    Among Jews, one appropriate and important time might be on Yom Kippur, after the ten days in which we are to do tshuvah – turn our lives in more just, peaceful, and holy directions.
    The traditional Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning includes a passage in which the High Priest sends one goat out into the wilderness (like Ishmael in the story we traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah), and sacrifices another — on the same mountain where according to tradition, in the other Rosh Hashanah story Isaac was bound for sacrifice.
    These two goats echo Isaac and Ishmael. The goats can be seen as our Yom Kippur act of tshuvah — No, we will NOT do this to human beings, only . And then we stop doing it to goats as well; we tell only the story.
    And now on Yom Kippur, we could take one more step toward tshuvah. To the reading about the goats, we could add – or even substitute — as a Torah reading the passage about Abraham’s death. (For synagogues where this seems halakhically or liturgically difficult, the passage could be read as “study,” not from the Torah Scroll.)
    And immediately after reading it, the congregation could read the names of BOTH Palestinians and Jews, BOTH Iraqis and Americans, who have been killed in the conflict of the past years.
    Then there could be congregational discussion in a Torah-study atmosphere about how this passage bears on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    This reading could be followed by either the full Mourners Kaddish or just the last paragraph of Mourners Kaddish (to distinguish this from the Kaddish said in memory of one’s closest beloveds).
    In the Oseh Shalom paragraph, after “v’al kol Yisrael,” the phrase “v’al kol Yishmael v’al kol yoshvei tayvel” could be added. — “May there be peace/ harmony for all Israel and all Ishmael and all who dwell on the planet” – that is, for the Jewish people, and for the Palestinian and all Arab and Muslim peoples, and for all endangered human cultures and all endangered species on the earth.
    When either community mourns the deaths only of those on “its side” who have been killed by those on “the other side,” the outcome is often more rage, more hatred, and more death. If we can share the grief for those dead on both “sides,” we are more likely to see each other as human beings and move toward ending the violence.
    Rabi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center — — and the author of more than a dozen books on Jewish life and thought.

  3. Shame on you KFJ for waiting until 2004! What took you so long? It’s like those intellectually lazy soldiers who waited until AFTER committed human rights abuses before deciding they were against them. Hello?! McFly?!
    Dear ten year old Jewish children: shame on you for ‘discovering’ the injustice in I/P in fourteen years while sneaking away after a Birthright trip. SHAME!
    Gut Shabbes everyone!

  4. In Chayye Sarah, there are two major geographical /symbolic venues: a tomb and a wellspring. Abraham buys the first because, he explains, he is otherwise merely a ger toshav, a nomad settler, in the land. Yet in Lev. 25:23, God says” You are all gerim vatoshavim with me: Don’t sell land in harness.” (Everett Fox’s translation; that is, in perpetuity) Therefore, don’t buy it that way as well. So it forbids what Abraham does.
    I’m not concerned with whether Abraham “knew the Torah” – the issue is beyond words and rules, it’s about deep truthful relationship with the Earth and God. Somehow death and purchase seem connected: purchase “in harness” stops the flow of life, challenges the “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be, I Am Becoming,” aspect of God. Only the dead know ownership.
    Then Isaac, after joining with Ishmael to bury Abraham – for the first time the Torah calls them “his sons” – goes off to live at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, the well of Ishmael and Hagar. He goes to “sit” there. Perhaps like a Zen teacher? The water flows, it is a well of life, it is a place to flow with. It is a place of reconciliation. No ownership, no deadliness.
    Shalom, salaam — Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center; see The Tent of Abraham (Beacon, 2006)- a book I co-authored with a Benedictine nun and a Sufi adept- for fuller exploration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.