D’var Torah (Rabbi Julie):
Sermon (Rabbi Julie):
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Transcript of Rabbi Julie’s Sermon
This coming Thursday, we will celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. On Thanksgiving Day, Americans traditionally gather with family and friends to enjoy a huge feast, often featuring turkey and stuffing, in celebration of the harvest and blessings of the past year. These customs are based on the first recorded autumn harvest feast dating back to 1621, when 90 Wampanoag Native American people and 53 Pilgrims gathered for a feast lasting three days.
In elementary school, the lessons about Thanksgiving focused on counting our blessings with art projects like a turkey made of construction paper with hand-written words of thanks on each of the turkey feathers. Sometimes, we learned about the pilgrims and the Native Americans (or Indians when I was a kid), but rarely did we speak of conflict let alone war and bloodshed. As a parent, I wondered if my kids would learn a more complex version of history than I had learned, but at least in the Princeton public schools, my kids still weren’t learning about Thanksgiving in a nuanced way from the perspective of both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
Since the Standing Rock protests of 2016 and 2017, it has become increasingly common to make land acknowledgments, a practice I first encountered at Princeton University. A land acknowledgement is a statement, often made at the beginning of a gathering or affixed to a building to publicly recognize the ongoing significance of the land to the specific Native tribes connected with that location. The first time I heard a land acknowledgement at a gathering of all campus life professionals it unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes.
I was moved that an institution like Princeton would make this type of gesture. The Vice President of Student Life said, ‘we gather on the land of the Lenni-Lanape. We honor the Lenape and other Indigenous caretakers of these lands and waters, the elders who lived here before, the Indigenous today, and the generations to come.’ Though insufficient as a stand-alone gesture, these words profoundly acknowledge a dual claim to the land. This year, at the Nutley interfaith Thanksgiving celebration, the service will begin with a land acknowledgement.
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This week’s Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah, begins with the death of our matriarch Sarah, who lived a span of one hundred and twenty-seven years. After joining Abraham on his journey to the land of Canaan and giving birth to Isaac in her old age, and (according to midrash) hearing the news that Abraham nearly sacrificed their son, Sarah dies. Abraham mourns his beloved wife who he was married to for over one hundred years. New to the land of Canaan, he needed to find a place to bury his wife. The Hittites, who were then in the land, were willing to gift a burial cave to Abraham, but Abraham insists on purchasing the land, for the price named by Ephron son of Zohar, without bargaining. Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah for its full price, publicly, ‘within the hearing’ of the Hittites.
This sacred burial spot, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried is the second holiest site in the Jewish religion after the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. By a show of hands, how many people here have visited the Cave of Machpelah?
Personally, I have visited Israel more than a dozen times including the year I lived in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student. I have visited the Kotel many, many times but I have never been to Hebron. It was never on the itinerary of any of the tours I took or led, and it seems too dangerous to visit on my own. I have known that tensions run very high in Hebron between the Palestinian and Israeli residents who live there and that soldiers from the IDF are often stationed in Hebron. But the details have always been a little fuzzy.
This week, I happened to speak to Josh Mack Drill, the son of a colleague of mine, a rabbi I studied with in Israel. Josh grew up in West Caldwell, NJ but made aliyah to Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces as an officer in Hebron. He is in the process of writing a book about his experience, a book he hopes that will explain the complexity of the situation, a book that tells the story from the perspective of the 200,000 + Palestinians who live there and the 1,000 Jewish settlers and the young Israeli soldiers who guard them.
After an hour of conversation with Josh and watching a movie recommended by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I am still far from an expert on Hebron. But I want to share a few key details.
For more than 100 years, there was a Jewish community living in peace in Hebron. Tragically, in 1929, there was a massacre and then the Jewish community was expelled. In 1967, the Israeli army recaptured Hebron as part of the six-day war, and there was pressure to allow the kids and grandkids of the earlier Jewish residents back in Hebron. At the time and still today, Hebron is one of the largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank. In 1994, on Purim, there was another massacre, this time committed by Baruch Goldstein who murdered Muslims praying in a mosque. After that tragedy, an agreement was made to split Hebron into two areas, one for Palestinians, and one for Israelis. There is regular violence between the two groups, and the IDF stations soldiers in Hebron to protect the Jewish settlers who live there.
There is much more that could be said in a class or on a tour, through watching a film and discussing it or by speaking with the Palestinian and Israeli residents of Hebron and the soldiers stationed there. For today, I just want to acknowledge, that the Cave of Machpelah which Abraham purchases in our Torah portion today is not simply a holy site, a shrine, and a concrete Jewish claim to the land of Israel. It is also a location of a great deal of pain, hatred, and suffering.
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According to Jewish tradition, the cave of Machpelah is also the burial place of Adam and Eve and marks the entrance place to the Garden of Eden. This teaching, expanded in the Zohar, is adds an additional layer of cosmic holiness to this site, especially for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. This intensifies the religious claim to this spot and makes the dichotomy between the reality of today and the ideal of a peaceful paradise all the more painful.
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It feels risky to talk about Hebron, as a new rabbi in a congregation that doesn’t often speak about Israel. But I believe strongly in something I was told when I first arrived for my year of study at Machon Shechter, the Israeli rabbinical school of the Conservative Movement. It was the middle of the second intifada, and many of my classmates from JTS did not come to Israeli as they would normally have been required to do. There were regular bus bombings that year and also a war with Iraq. I remember the Dean of the Israeli rabbinical school telling us that this year was the year we would develop a mature love for Israeli. Not the infatuation of a first trip to Ben Yehudah Street and Masada, not the giddy love when you first start dating, but rather the mature love that manifests in a long marriage, in a lifetime commitment that includes easy times and struggles.
It’s hard to know when you’re educating kids and adults, and when you’re confronting complex stories yourself, when to allow yourself to just feel the joy of a connection that goes back thousands of years and when to examine the full complexity of the matter. Part of the work we have ahead of us as a congregation is to think about that. I could have just spoken about Rebekah’s kindness at the well or elaborated on the Zohar’s understanding of this cave as an entry place to Gan Eden. But I chose instead to talk about the cave and about modern-day Hebron because I want to open the conversation about how we’re going to begin to talk about and study and visit the holy land that was promised to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
Before I conclude, let me say explicitly, that I do not believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be understood through the lens of conflicts in America. The history and the identities of the peoples involved are too different. But Thanksgiving and Hayyei Sarah, our Torah portion today, do share a similar question. How will we talk about places we love while still acknowledging their full complexities?
When we sit down at our Thanksgiving tables this coming Thursday, we will be faced with many questions. How do we count our blessings? How do we enjoy connecting with family and friends? How do we eat until we have to unbutton the top button of our pants? And how might we acknowledge the narratives of all the peoples who lived on this land?
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Thanksgiving.
 Genesis 23: 1-11.