So Ephron's land in Machpelah, near Mamre - the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field - passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town. And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre - now Hebron - in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.
It is interesting how we, like many other cultures, attach such significance to cemeteries, as "hallowed ground." After all, we believe that the soul, or the spirit, leaves the body, and we believe that the body returns to dust (note the Jewish emphasis on total return to dust - only a biodegradable coffin (in Israel, only a shroud - no coffin), no embalming. And yet, we invest great resources - in land and in maintenance - in cemeteries; we see them as sacred ground in perpetuity. The spirit may be elsewhere, the body may be gone - but apparently we need a place to keep the memory, and often that place is part of the landscape.
In modern Israel, the dead are all around us and often make it to the front page. The main highway to Jerusalem passes alongside a huge cemetery, a mountain of graves, as it enters the city. There is no tour of the country that does not include at least one of the major Holocaust memorials, and several of the military memorials, from Ammunition Hill to Tel Hai. It seems that every time a major new construction project is begun, we read headlines about violent protests by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators over the desecration of ancient Jewish graves. In recent weeks, a new crisis has arisen with a different twist: the Simon Wiesenthal Center has begun construction of a massive "Museum of Toleration" in downtown Jerusalem - and lo and behold, the site turns out to have been the main Moslem cemetery of the new city. The builders got a legal opinion that the cemetery had been "decommissioned." And you thought cartoons were a touchy subject...
When it comes to cemeteries, it turns out that memories bound up in landscape are powerful forces; and that eternity is a pretty long time.
Here in the Galilee another interesting drama has just unfolded, with a happy ending. On a mountain not far from Shorashim stood, until 1948, a small Arab village which found itself right in the path of the Israeli army as it fought for this region in the War of Independence. The residents fled to the countryside and to other villages when the army entered; in the early 50s the village's land, as abandoned property, became state land and the villagers were not allowed to return. In the 70s the land was allotted to a new Jewish community being set up, and today around 100 families live there. The actual "core" of the original village, with its ruins and its cemetery, remains - the new community was built next to it. Many of the original villagers and their descendants now live in villages in the surrounding area, and maintain a connection, somewhere between resentment and nostalgia, to their lost land.
Recently, the Jewish community received planning commission approval for an expansion, some of which involved building over the ruins of the village core. Activists among the local refugees began to try to lobby the Jewish residents, to respect and preserve the remains of the village, even though the villagers understood that returning to their land was not an option. There was a minority in the community who supported this request - but over a year or so of discussion, more and more were persuaded, so that ultimately, the community voted to remove a number of prospective homesites from the plan, leaving the village core and cemetery intact as a memorial space for its former residents.
Good luck? Perhaps. Good leadership? Perhaps. Good listening - for sure.