Doubling down in Hebron: A Torah teaching.
Following the death of Abraham . . . we read: “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre.” (Genesis 25:9) I can’t help but think this short verse says all that needs to be said about that godforsaken cave. It’s long past time to bury the dead and get on with living.
The Torah portion for this Shabbat, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 21:1-25:18) begins with a complex description of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife Sarah — a site that eventually becomes the familial burial plot for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
The name “Machpelah” literally means “the doubled one” for reasons that are not entirely clear. According the Midrashic legend, Adam and Eve were the first to be buried there. In a Talmudic debate (Eruvin 53a), Rav suggests the cave had two levels, while Rabbi Shmuel says it contained tombs in pairs. Abahu comments that anyone buried in the cave had a double portion in the world to come.
But there is a more compelling reason why this site might be called “the doubled one.” It has literally functioned for centuries as both a synagogue and a mosque.
Called Ma’arat Machpelah by Jews and Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi by Muslims, members of both faiths worship on opposite sides of the large interior space. Today, of course, this synagogue/mosque sits atop a virtual powder keg. After 1994, when a Jewish extremist settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty nine Muslims engaged in prayer in Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the interior was divided by a wall, with two completely separate entrances for Muslims and Jews.
This “doubling” eventually extended to grip the entire city of Hebron. Following the massacre, the IDF imposed increasing curfews and restriction of movement on the Palestinian population. In 1996, as part of the Oslo agreement, Hebron was divided into two sections: H1 and H2. H1 is locally governed by the Palestinian Authority and is home to approximately 120,000 Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in H2 along under the control of the Israeli military, who are charged with the protection of 600 Jewish settlers who have aggressively moved into the city center. Since the Second Intifada, Israel increased their security crackdown on this part of the city, blocking off major streets to Palestinians — most notably the main commercial road, Shehadah Street. (The army refers to them as “sterile roads”).