When Abraham Wept

How can it be that what we demand of others we do not demand of ourselves?

Last Shabbat, when the Torah portion telling of Abraham's purchase of Ma'arat Hamachpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) was read, thousands of Jewish Israelis descended on Hebron. They came both to celebrate that historic event and to show their identification with the contemporary struggle for the "house of contention," a house near the Machpelah, in the heart of the Arab city, that Jewish settlers have laid claim to. The settlers and their supporters have vowed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the army to enforce the High Court order to vacate that building until a decision is reached concerning its valid ownership. But one wonders if those joining in this celebration took any time at all to consider some of the events that have occurred there in recent days and perhaps to do some soul-searching as well.

In addition to attacks on soldiers and Israeli police, I am referring specifically to the desecration of a mosque and of a Muslim cemetery in Hebron. The pictures of those places, defaced with graffiti referring to the prophet Mohammed as a pig, together with Stars of David painted on gravestones, made me shiver. I could not help but see them as the exact duplicate of pictures from Europe and elsewhere where Jewish cemeteries and synagogues were desecrated by anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. In place of the swastika was the star. In place of the "Jews" were Mohammed and Arabs.

What has been the reaction of the Jewish world whenever such things were done to us? Thunderous condemnation. Demands that the local police track down the culprits. Outrage that such things can still happen today, and demands that the governments concerned take action. Assuming that the people who carried out these acts are a small group of deviants who in no way represent the bulk of the Jewish public in Israel or the West Bank, one would expect a quick response, expressing condemnation as well as offers to clean up the damage.

Yet, how has the Jewish world reacted to the events in Hebron? Fairly quietly, as far as I can tell. Perhaps I have not seen the condemnations issued by the rabbis of the Yesha Council of Settlements, or from the chief rabbis of Israel and the country's other so-called religious leaders, but I have looked. Was there an apology on the part of the residents of Kiryat Arba, where the bulk of the Hebron area's Jewish community resides? If there was one, I saw no notice of it.

How can it be that what we demand of others we do not demand of ourselves? What happened to Hillel's teaching that the essence of Judaism, from which all else springs, is, "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your fellow human being"?

Nor have the relevant governmental authorities responded in an appropriate manner. A statement from an army spokesman that, "Most of the rioters were minors and we did not discern any adults inciting and directing them," is unsatisfactory. Minors, too, must be held responsible for their actions, as should their parents or adult guardians. We cannot afford to let such deeds go unpunished and treated as if they did not matter.

Ironically, the Torah portion, "Hayyei Sarah," that provided the occasion for the mass gathering and celebration in Hebron tells us that when Abraham died, "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in Ma'arat Hamachpelah - the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites" (Genesis 25:10). Isaac and Ishmael together, the sons of Abraham, descendants of the same father. Abraham cared for his son Ishmael, the forefather of the Arabs. When Abraham had to send Ishmael away, God comforted the father by saying, "Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave - as for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed" (Genesis 21:12-13). Was Abraham rejoicing when that cemetery was desecrated? Perhaps this was a time when Abraham wept.

It has been said that the goal of creating a Jewish state was to enable us to become "like all the nations." Indeed, we have seen this happen in all too many ways. We have our gangs, our murderers, our sex traffickers, our wife beaters and wife killers, our child molesters and murderers of babies, our drug addicts, our corrupt politicians. Now we also have our hate-mongers and our desecrators of houses of worship and cemeteries. Should we rejoice over that, or should we mourn?

Shortly after the Six-Day War I, too, rejoiced that for the first time in my life I was able to ascend beyond the seventh step and go into the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It seemed that this was the correction of centuries of discrimination against Jews. Is this the price that we have to pay for that privilege? If so, it was not worth it. Our return to this sacred place must not be purchased at the price of our morality. Whatever we do, our integrity as Jews, as descendants of Abraham whose concern for justice and righteousness was legendary, who refused to take even "a thread or a sandal strap" that was not his by right, is what gives us our legitimacy. Let us not abandon it so easily.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the author of "Entering Jewish Prayer" and "Or Hadash," is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.