Avraham looked every day of his 90 years. Dark and compact, he was the same height as his 13-year old half-Yemenite, half-Ashkenazi grandson who helped him up the stairs. His son Mordechai, a city dweller, had, at first, objected to the late-night visit to Hebron but relented when his father began to make other plans to make the trip. He almost reneged when his son, Noam, insisted on accompanying his grandfather.
Mordechai ran up the stairs, struggling with several large packages. He caught up to them as they approached the IDF security station. He had lagged behind, parking the car and smoking a cigarette. As a city dweller, he was not used to walking and being surrounded by Arab houses made him nervous.
“Abba [father], did it have to be tonight?” Mordechai said for perhaps the twentieth time that night.
“Yes,” Avraham insisted.
“Tell me again, about what your father and grandfather told you,” Noam said, pulling out his cellphone. “I want to post it online.”
He began to video his grandfather as they walked up the stairs leading into the ancient building. Noam was risking a fall by walking backward, wanting to get the best possible angle.
“My father first brought me here when I was 38 years old,” Avraham began in heavily accented Hebrew. “It was right after Israel conquered the city. Moshe Dayan would have shut it off to Jews and given it to the Arabs but Rabbi Goren stopped that. My father was, of course, very old at the time and, like I am doing to you now, he forced me to bring him here. It was much more dangerous back then but he insisted. His father in Teimen [Yemen] had made him promise that when he came to the Holy Land, he would come to visit the fathers and mothers. He told him that this day, the 28th of Cheshvan, was the day Avraham died. In the Torah, we learn about the death of Sarah and the purchase of the Machpelah [ [Cave of the Patriarchs] in the beginning of Parshat [weekly reading of the Torah] Chayei Sara [Genesis 23:1–25:18]. Since we learn about the death of Abraham at the end of the Parsha, my father’s rabbi learned from this that even though Avraham died many years later, the date of his death was one day later. So he learned that the day after we read about Sarah dying was the date of Avraham’s death. It was also his birthday, but that is the way it is with tzaddikim [holy men]; the day they enter the world is the same as the day they leave and they are both reasons to celebrate. It is also my birthday. That is why I was named Avraham and that is how my grandfather knew that I would be the first in my family to come to visit Saba [grandfather] Avraham where he lives today.”
Noam looked at him over his cell phone. “Avraham isn’t alive, Saba.”
“Of course he is,” his grandfather insisted. “After we leave our bodies, our eternal neshama [soul] is still here. This place is the gateway to Gan Eden [Garden of Eden]. All of Israel passes through here on their way to Olam Haba [the world to come] so he can greet his children before they enter.”
They entered the building and sat down for a short rest at a long table covered with holy books.
“When we came here last year, you said the same thing and I asked my rabbi in Yeshiva [Torah institution]. He said we don’t know what day Avraham died,” Noam said.
“Of course, he would say that,” Avraham said. “He isn’t Teimani [Yemenite] and he never lived in Shiloah, so he didn’t learn from my father’s rabbi, Rabbi Hayim Gadasi. Rav Gadasi had a tradition that was taught down through the generations in his family.”
The large hall was almost entirely empty with only a few worshippers scattered around. Mordechai set the bags down on a table and began to pull containers of food out of the packages. His phone rang and he answered, quickly becoming immersed in the conversation and walking away from the table. Noam accompanied his grandfather to the window that gave a glimpse of the large monument draped in green that tradition held marked the grave of the first patriarch. Avraham’s lips moved in silent prayer as he gazed at the holy site. His grandson dragged over two chairs and produced a water bottle, handing it to his grandfather.
“So what did your rabbi at Yeshiva tell you about this place?” Avraham asked.
“Well, he said that it is called the Machpelah because it is a double cave,” Noam answered. “ He also said it is called that because of the couples who are buried here; Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov and Leah.”
“And that is why it is called the Machpelah?” Avraham asked. “Your rabbi didn’t tell you that Avraham travelled all the way from Beersheba to buy this spot from Ephron? He chose this site to bury Sara because Adam and Hava were buried here. Did your rabbi tell you that this is the entrance to Gan Eden? All the souls who leave this world must go through the Machpelah. My rabbi taught me that if you get close enough, you can smell the fragrances of paradise coming out from the cave.”
“No, Saba,” Noam answered. “He didn’t teach us that. Is that from the Zohar [a book of Jewish mysticism]? We don’t learn Zohar. Not until we are forty years old and married.”
The old man shook his head in disbelief. “That is what they teach you in that Ashkenazi yeshiva your mother’s rabbi likes. In Teiman, we recited the Zohar as soon as we knew how to read. Is that all they taught you about this holy place? My rabbi taught me this but he was never able to come here. For 700 years, the closest any Jew could come to visiting our forefathers was the steps outside. He was never here but he knew what it smelled like.”
“He taught us that there are three places the nations cannot say the Jews stole and that this is one of them,” Noam said. “The other two are the Temple Mount and Shechem [Nablus], where Yosef is buried.”
Avraham paused, suddenly overcome with pride that the tradition of Torah learning was being continued through his grandson. And though the learning was not in the style that he had been taught in Aden [city in Yemen], it was Torah and made the old man proud.
Finished with his personal prayer near the tomb of his namesake, Avraham went back out to the main hall. He was surprised to see a small crowd walking toward him. Three well-dressed men carrying small packs were surrounded by five burly security guards wearing the unmistakable loose tan shirts that covered the handguns tucked inside their belts and the radio connected by curly wires to ear pieces. They stopped short, not expecting to see anyone exiting the room adjoining Avraham’s tomb.
“As-salaam ‘alaikum [Peace be upon you],” Avraham said, greeting the men in Arabic. “Welcome to father Ibrahim.”
Noam looked at his grandfather with a confused expression. Avraham had never spoken Arabic in his home and though Mordechai knew that his father spoke Arabic, Noam clearly did not.
One of the well-dressed men stepped forward, making the security detail look nervously around. No one in the hall seemed to notice the strange scene playing out and Mordechai was nowhere to be seen.
“Alaikum as-salam [the proper response to As-salaam ‘alaikum],” one of the men said.”You speak Arabic?”
“I grew up in Alyaman,” Avraham explained, using the Arabic name for Yemen.
“Aaah,” the man said. “Now I hear your accent. We were told there would be no Arabs in this part of the mosque.”
“There aren’t. I am not an Arab or a Muslim,” Avraham said. “I am a Jew but I grew up in Yemen among Arabs. And this is not a mosque,” he added.
“How did you know we were Arabs?” the man asked. “We were instructed to dress in Western clothes and not to speak in order to avoid troubles.”
“In Teiman, we knew who everyone was, who were the Arabs and who were the Jews,” Avraham said. “We respected each other. No one will give you trouble for coming to pray.”
The Arab man glanced at the security men and Avraham realized they were listening in on their conversation. Avraham, raised among Arabs, could identify Arabs at a glance, a skill that not all Israelis had. The security detail were all Jews but had apparently been assigned to guard the delegation because of their fluency in Arabic. The security men relaxed as they saw that the conversation was friendly.
“My name is Ibrahim,” the Arab man said. “I am from the United Arab Emirates and we are visiting Israel as part of a delegation, a consortium of several companies tasked with dealing with the coronavirus, hafazna Allah [may Allah have mercy].”
“Yes, may Hashem have mercy on us all,” Avraham said. “My name is also Ibrahim, but we pronounce it Avraham. Would you care to join me in a small meal to celebrate Avraham’s birthday?”
“You needn’t worry,” Avraham said. “The food is all kosher so it is also halal.”
Ibrahim laughed and sat down. “Thank you. I will gladly join in, to honor Ibrahim, the one who is buried here and the one who is sitting with me today.” The two other Arab men sat down while the security detail remained standing vigilantly around them.
Avraham excused himself for the ritual washing of hands. After he recited the blessing over bread, he urged his guests to partake, waiting until he was sure they would eat before putting food on his plate. The food had been prepared by Avraham’s daughter who had learned from her born-in-Yemen mother. Authentically Middle-Eastern and served with freshly baked lachuch flatbreads, it was familiar and appealing to the Emiratis.
He turned to his guest. “How is it that a businessman from a country that hates us comes here?”
“You haven’t heard of the Abraham Accords?” Ibrahim said. “It is an agreement that was signed calling for our countries to be friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as we say.”
“I had not heard,” Avraham said. “But it is surprising that you are here.”
“The disease is forcing us to move faster than we might normally have done under normal circumstances,” Ibrahim said. “Israel is a leader in technology, especially medical technology, and we are ready to learn and cooperate.”
Avraham poured two cups of thick Turkish coffee from a thermos. Ibrahim took a sip and sighed.
“Ahlan [Arabic exclamation of joy], just like we drink it back home,” Ibrahim exclaimed. “With just enough alHel [cardamom].”
Avraham nodded in reply. He suddenly smiled. “It is amazing that this peace came about just as the disease struck. It is clearly divine providence pushing us together. Why did you come to the Machpelah?” The man’s confused look prompted Avraham to explain. “We call this place the Machpelah. It is what Avraham called it in the Torah.” Avraham gave a short explanation of the meanings behind the name, adding what Noam had learned.
Ibrahim gasped with joy and surprise at the explanation. “Yes, the prophet Ibrahim is indeed to be praised.”
“Tell me,” Avraham said. “Why do you come here?”
“When my father was a young man, he went on Haj [pilgrimage] to Mecca and on Eid al-Adha [Muslim festival commemorating the binding of Ishmael by his father], he was meditating at the Hijr Ismail [the burial site of Ishmael and Hagar] next to the Kaaba [the holiest site in Islam located in Mecca] where uni Hajar [grandmother Hagar] and waladi Ismaeil [grandfather Ishmael] are buried. He was meditating on the sacrifice of Ismael when he had a vision of the event and realized that Ishaq [Isaac] was also a prophet sent by Allah to accompany his brother on the ordeal. He took a personal oath to sacrifice two rams on the Eid [feast] instead of just one; two goats to represent the two brothers. That is also why, many years later, he named me Ibrahim. He has always wanted to come to personally thank Ishaq but because of political realities, he could not. He is very old and can’t make the journey. The pandemic has made that too dangerous. But when he heard I was coming, he made me promise to come in his place.”
“That is not the way we learn it,” Avraham said. “The Torah specifically describes the binding of Isaac, not Ishmael. Ishmael accompanied Abraham to the mountain but he remained at the base of the mountain while Abraham and Isaac continued up. We tell the story differently.”
“But you tell the story of Ibrahim, Ishaq, and Ismael,” the Arab man said, a smile spreading across his face. “Alhamdulillah [God is great]. The Yahud [Jews] and the Arabs both bear witness to the truth of the stories and the great faith of Khalilullah [the friend of Allah] Ibrahim when he offered up his son. If all the Yahud and all the Muslims speak of this until this day, how can anyone doubt the stories are true?”
The two men beamed at each other.
“Tell me, do you tell the story of Ibrahim breaking the idols of his father, Aazar [Terah]?” Ibrahim asked. “Or the story of Namrud [Nimrod] trying to burn him? Or how Ibrahim took four birds and cut them up, placing the pieces of each on nearby hills and when he called out to them, each piece joined and four birds flew back to Abraham?”
“Yes, we tell all those stories but in Jewish tradition, it is not just birds that he sacrifices,’ Avraham said. “And it is then, after Avraham cut up the animals, that Hashem promised to give the land of Israel to his descendants.”
Both men were suddenly silent as they realized that they had stumbled upon the crux of the unspoken and unavoidable obstacle that stood between them.
“Your story about your father reminds me of something else we learn,” Avraham finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “The Torah teaches that Sara sent Hagar away with Ishmael. But after Avraham died, Ishmael returned to help bury his father. He made peace with his brother, Yitzchak. We have a tradition that Ishmael honored his younger brother, Yitzchak, by allowing him to go first in the funeral procession even though Ishmael, as the older brother, had the right to go first.”
“What does the Torah say about Ismael after that?” Ibrahim asked excitedly. “Was he blessed for honoring Ishaq?
Avraham considered the question. As a Yemenite, most of his learning had been oral, brute memorization by rote, an intensive process brought about by necessity as books were rare in Yemen. He recited the verse in Bereshit [Genesis] describing Avraham’s funeral, continuing to the following section.
“Yes, it seems Ishmael was blessed for this act,” Avraham said. “The next verse says that Yitzchak was blessed. And the section after lists all of the children born to Ishmael and that he lived to the age of one hundred and thirty seven years.”
“Of course, Ismail was blessed. Doesn’t your Torah say that whoever blesses the children of Ibrahim will himself be blessed in return?” Ibrahim asked, with a sly but humorous grin, laughing at the surprised look on Avraham’s face. “I have glanced into your Torah once or twice.”
“And I have glanced into the Quran once or twice,” Avraham said sharply. “Doesn’t the Quran affirm what the Torah says; that the land of Israel is for the Jews?”
“Ya Kharaashy [OMG]!” Ibrahim exclaimed. “You are abyad ul qalb [white heart] and speak the truth. This is what the Quran says but politically, no Arab can turn his back on the Palestinians. InshAllah [God willing], one day we will be past this political impasse and the words of the prophet and the words of your Torah will come true.”
The two men stood in silence for a few moments. “But why do you come to this side?” Avraham finally asked. “Yitzchak is on the other side and that side is for the Muslims.”
“A delegation from our country was here not so long ago,” Ibrahim said. “They wanted to pray on the Temple Mount but when they entered the Aqsa Mosque, they were accosted by Palestinians. When I made my request to visit Ishaq, I was denied but I persisted. Because of my father’s story, I knew I had to come visit, even if it was Ibrahim. I thought they were the same place. The people in charge of our security thought that if we came to this side in the middle of the night, with no fuss, there wouldn’t be any problems.”
“Didn’t you explain to your hosts why it was so important that you come to Hebron?” Avraham asked.
“No,” Ibrahim said. “I thought it was obvious that I wanted to visit my forefather Ibrahim and the prophets Ishaq and Yaqub.”
“That is a pity,” Avraham said. “You will not be able to pray at the tomb of Yitzchak as your father wanted.”
“You do not want me to pray here?” Ibrahim asked.
“It is not that,” Avraham said. “Abba Avraham is right here but if you can’t go to the side where Muslims are permitted, if you are only permitted where Jews can go, then you cannot go to Isaac. That is forbidden to us and also, it seems, to you.”
“Forbidden?” Ibrahim said in surprise. “I thought that Israel had conquered Hebron. Israel has freedom of religion, plurality, like we do in the Emirates. If the Israeli government is in charge then all should be welcome to pray as they choose. Is that not so?”
Avraham shrugged. “Be that as it may, Jews are not allowed to pray at the grave of Yitzchak.”
“Does that mean that you will not allow me to pray here, at the grave of Ibrahim,” the Arab asked, a slight edge to his voice.
“I cannot stop you nor do I want to,” Avraham said. “God changed Avram’s name so that he would become the father of many nations and here you are, proving that God’s words came true. Please, feel free.”
Ibrahim opened his pack, taking out a prayer rug rolled up. This was a signal to the other two Emirati businessmen who followed suit. They lay out the rugs facing Mecca and knelt to pray. The security detail surrounded them, discouraging the few curious onlookers but allowing Avraham and Noam to remain. His grandson brought him a chair but Avraham chose to stand rather than sit in the presence of men praying. When they finished, Ibrahim approached Avraham with his hand held out.
“It has been a real pleasure speaking with you, Avraham,” he said.
“While you were praying, I got to thinking about the blessing that was given to Ishmael,” he said. “The rabbis teach that because of Ishmael making peace and honoring his brother, this will happen again before the Moshiach comes.”
“InshAllah,” Ibnrahim interjected.
“Maybe not,” Avraham said. “You said that this agreement that brought you here is called the Abraham Accords? Maybe it was father Avraham that made this political agreement happen just to bring his two sons together and that is why the agreement was called in his name. And the reason it is working is because you are doing just what Ishmael did; honoring your brother.”
One of the other businessmen, much younger than Ibrahim, spoke up. “That is very nice but the fact is that we are here on business.”
“That is not accurate,” Ibrahim said. “We are here because the Israelis have medical technology we need to get through this crisis. They also have much more to offer economically and in security. This is indeed a meeting of brothers. And the prophecy is coming true. Inshallah, more Emiratis will come to visit Ibrahim, Ishaq, and Yaqub. And, InshAllah, we will, one day, be able to pray at the Aqsa Mosque alongside our Palestinian brothers.”
The two men named after their common patriarch shook hands and the three-man delegation left, surrounded by their security detail. As they walked out, Mordechai entered the hall, still staring intensely at his cell phone. He hurried over to Avraham.
“I am sorry, Abba,” Mordechai said. “I got an important call. My company just got a huge contract for our special masks. You know, like the one I gave you last week. It is special technology developed at Ben Gurion that kills viruses. It turns out that there are some countries that want to get them. I don’t want to bother you with the details but I am very excited.”
Avraham smiled. “Yes, you are correct. I would not understand how these business deals happen. Let’s just go home.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a (hopefully) ongoing project initiated by Rabbi Tuly Weisz, the publisher of Israel365 News, in which we explore the weekly Torah reading through creative fiction. This week, Jews around the world are reading the portion called Chayei Sara. Ironically, the name means ‘the life of Sara’ but describes the purchase of the Machpela in Hebron, the cave in which all of the patriarchs and matriarchs, save Rachel, are buried. The word ‘Machpela’ means ‘doubled’ and the etymological root of the name of Hebron means to be joined. It is also the root of the word ‘friend.’ According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were the first occupants and the Biblical description of the purchase by Abraham is used in Jewish law as the template for marriage. The essence of the site, the power that emanates uniquely from the mouth of the cave, grants the power to come together.
It is a testament to this power that the politicians who conceived the Abraham Accords understood this aspect of Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. In the millenia that Hebron and the Machpela were neglected, nationalism was the cause of divisiveness and hatred. As Jews are reunited with the first place in Israel that the father of nations connected with, it may be that the archetypal resting place of Abraham will become the source of peace among all 70 nations.