Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Chayyei Sarah 2012

Parashat Chayyei Sarah by Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu
9 November 2012

Two Caves?

Some people are travellers and others are settled people. Yet all of us will die. Families of travelling people must find a place to bury their loved ones, and in this week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah, Abraham is faced with just such a painful dilemma. They are outsiders in Canaan, and Sarah ,his wife, is dead. He needs a burial place. Their entire future will be bound up in this land, in Canaan, but they have no rights here. In the future, he knows, more of his family will die. One day even himself. And those who are not yet born will also need a resting place. So Abraham must even provide a place for his people to die, before they even live.

Abraham is a pragmatist. He has to find Ephron the Hittite, a landowner, and then to persuade Ephron to sell him the land in a binding and permanent deal. There can be no gift, no patronising favour, lest anyone doubts to whom this land will now belong. It costs him dear, but Abraham understands the value of this space, the field and the cave - the cave of Machpelah.

The cave? Perhaps? Because this spot’s name has an intriguing meaning. Machpelah, from the Hebrew word k-f-l, might also mean the double cave, the twin place. This odd name might imply not just one burial place, but two.The Talmud suggests one space inside another. Or possibly one cave space on top of another. But the argument continues that this might be wrong, perhaps not  a double cave but a cave for couples, looking forward to the day when now dead couples will lie in its space.

As Rabbi Danny Rich once taught me, Abraham is a master of contractual bargaining. His explicit goal seems to be secure. He is the owner of this place. Yet, as things turn out, in the long lens of history, Machpelah indeed becomes a double place, a  site for double histories and double narratives. It is still there today, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, near Hebron. Also a Church in the Byzantine empire, and now, since the Mamluk conquest also a Muslim mosque. It is today under the religious control of the Waqf. Yet, strangely enough, after centuries of fighting,a most painful and bloody history, there are still only two known entrances to this many layered holy site. Today, one of them leads through a synagogue,and another through a  Mosque.

How I wish that this field, and its cave, might present us with  a model of conflict and its solutions. Yet instead this burial space is not yet a model of peace. As a real concrete, historical and religious site, it may not seem to offer us much hope. Except for this. Much has changed over time, in its own religious journey. but it still retains its original name,  Machpelah. The double place, the doubling place. The double entrances, and its double story reflect two entire realities, and two ways of seeing. This burial space still comes to teach that in the final concrete, absolute and unavoidable reality, (and what can be more certain that the fact that we are human and we will all one day face our own death), lies a difficult and uncomfortable truth. Machpelah, double, two complete realities. Belief in only one will always exclude the other. Our final goal, which begins Abraham’s arrival as a stranger, and traces its journey to us today, is that both will live with the full acceptance of the other. Knowing that when it comes to truth, it is never only about the one, and like Machpelah, always two.