Seeing with the eye of kinship
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
I’m back in the cool and misty Bay after a few weeks in the overheated Middle East. Folks here seem a bit chilly, withdrawn, and insular, unlike the Holy Landers who tend to be blustery, brusque, and yet strangely affable. American elbows are tucked tightly to our sides; Israeli elbows protrude, batting and battering away at anything in their path. Here you can fall down in the street and no one stops or skips a beat; there you stub your toe and 12 gruff strangers form an ersatz triage unit. Our cultures couldn’t be more different.
This week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) explores the roots of cultural conflict, the clumsy way we communicate outside of our tribe, and the lasting ramifications of those dealings. The central drama focuses on Sarah’s death, which occurs in Cana’an, in a little village called Hebron. Abraham is told by the local Chiefs that since he is great man he can have his pick of burial places for his beloved wife. He chooses a cave at the edge of a field owned by a guy called Ephron. Abraham offers to buy it, and Ephron says, “My lord, hear me; the land is worth 400 shekels of silver. What is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” Now, instead of graciously saying, “Thank YOU, my lord,” Abraham weighs out the silver in the presence of a large gathering of Hittites, buys the cave, and buries Sarah there.
That cave has seen a lot. It is in one of the most contested and venerated, violent and prayerful places in the Holy Land. According to religious tradition, Hebron is in the area where the first human, Adam, was made from the local red clay; Cain murdered Abel there; and Noach planted his vineyard on the mountain. Some say John the Baptist was born there and others say Hebron was a stop on The Prophet’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. One would think that all of these spiritual associations would ensure a respect and open-heartedness between Jews, Christians and Muslims. But, no. Instead of being a place of connection and universality, Hebron is a place that proves how unprepared humanity is to see with the eye of kinship and compassion. Instead we fight over who is the rightful owner.
A little over a week ago I was sitting on a farm in Gush Etzion, another hot spot in the West Bank. We were meeting with R. Shaul Judelman, an Orthodox Jewish settler, and Noor A’wad, a Palestinian activist, at a project called Roots*. They shared how they reconcile their narratives, their experiences, and their divergent connections to that land. They operate on a simple concept: this land doesn’t belong to us; rather, we belong to this land.
Navigating that common connection means they must see each other with compassion, curiosity, and care, despite the inequalities, differences, and conflicts. Claiming ownership—of the land, of the greater wound, of the clearer truth—leads to a cul-de-sac of suffering. Hearing them honor their common pain, anguish, and hope for peace, one is witness to healing. Shaul said, “There are many asymmetries in this country, but fear is not one of them.” They see and understand each other’s fear, and rather than leverage it, they find ways to conquer it. Their willingness to see the other as kin is brave, radical, and (I think) holy.
Reading this week’s parsha, I can’t help but notice how grief and transaction, swagger and distrust, tribalism and power swirl together to form a vortex of heartbreak that persists to this very day. We carry our wounds and scars, we carry our ancestors’ wounds and scars, we create new wounds and scars. And we pay to bury our dead.
May this Shabbat give us time to reflect on our tender human need to grieve and trust, to be vulnerable and loved, to give and to receive. Let us find the courage to prize peace, friendship, and love above all other possessions.
* for more information: https://www.friendsofroots.net/about/