AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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 parsha called Toldot (generations, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It contains the section describing Isaac’s efforts to uncover the wells of his father the locals had filled in. This section has always confused me. It seemed horribly self-destructive for a resident of one of the more arid regions in Israel to fill in wells. But, unfortunately, this is the reality Jews experience in Israel today in which the Palestinians hate the Jews more than they love themselves. Kindness is repaid with violence, even if it means self-destruction. Arabs routinely burn the land, clearly illustrating their hatred for the land. They are enabled by foreigners who share their hatred for the land and the people who are an inconvenient reminder that God’s covenant still exists. This may be because God’s ongoing relationship with the world requires they act according to His will. It could be argued that anti-Zionism is not synonymous with anti-Semitism. But the undeniable fact is that there is no other political movement that targets any other country as Israel is targeted. There is no other term like anti-Zionism to describe any other movement. It pains me to say this and few Jews care to admit that Jews are not immune to Jew-hatred. This is not a movement based on reason and logic is useless when dealing with it. It is a sickness of the soul, a rejection of the individual’s soul and its Creator. Conversely, the love of Israel, the land and the nation, transcends explanation. It flows from the soul.
Eliezer woke with the muezzin [Muslim call to prayer], as he did every morning including Shabbat. It took him a few moments to unfold himself from the sofa before going into the kitchen to boil up some Turkish coffee. He had gone to sleep in his bed, snuggled up to Rivka, but Koranit and Sarai stumbled in sometime in the course of the night. Rivka was in her last month of pregnancy and needed her sleep. The girls needed to be close to their eema [mother] and as long as there was coffee, Eliezer didn’t mind sleeping a little less soundly in the living room.
He drank his coffee standing up in the kitchen as it was a section added onto the caravan. The insulation was better than in the caravan section of the house so he was saved a bit of the morning chill. The bedroom was also added on, built from local stones he collected from nearby. The stones were beautiful and made the house seem an organic part of the surrounding countryside but, more importantly, the bedroom was the safe room, windowless and impervious to gunfire. His home in the hills of Hebron was isolated but the closest neighbors, out of sight thanks to the topography, were a nearby scattering of Arab houses well on its way to congealing into an actual village. He grabbed a small pack containing his lunch before checking the video screen in the living room. In dull green night vision, everything looked safe and secure.
He lived simply but the farm was packed with security cameras and motion detectors hooked up to alarms. Raising goats in close proximity to Arabs was playing with fire, an open invitation to try and steal what they prized the most, but the fresh milk was too good to do without. And it was a small but important cash flow while the trees were busy growing.
The small green John Deere was waiting for him in the shed. He plucked the tin can off the exhaust stack that kept the rain out of the engine. The throaty diesel kicked to life and he let it warm up as he waited for Jim. After a few minutes, Jim stumbled out of his small shack, his work boots flopping as the laces slithered around, threatening to trip him up. He struggled as he climbed up the hitch and power drive on the back of the tractor, finally reaching his perch on the fender, mumbling something that might have been ‘good morning’. His sky-blue eyes were hidden under the greasy brim of his cap, folded into a tight crest that cut off any peripheral distractions. His crew cut wheat blond hair was barely visible in the pre-dawn making him look bald. Eliezer handed him the thermos before putting the tractor into gear, working his way up to the highest gear when he got onto the road.
He thought back to when he first arrived at the farm. A dusty track was the only feature for miles around, leading to the tightly grouped trio of Carmel, Susya, and Maon, the Jewish settlements that popped up just a few months after Eliezer arrived at the hilltop. Bedouins drifted around the area, moving their tents after their goats and sheep had denuded the locale, pulling the grass out by the roots. But when the road got paved, the Bedouins began pitching their tents right next to the asphalt, treating the road like an extension of their living space. Not so long after, small shacks and even cinder block structures began to appear next to the road.
It was a short road to the orchard but the sun was already up, rising fast in the late spring. The first order of the day was to check the irrigation system. A steel box secured with a heavy lock covered the timer and the main valve. The desert was a demanding place to grow anything but a disciplined and smart farmer could make the desert bloom. Irrigation took place at night and the system delivered the water directly to the roots of each tree via a stiff plastic tube driven into the dry and rocky soil.
Eliezer planted this section of the orchard, a nice stand of peaches, three years ago when he had already been on the farm for two years. The trees were big but he and Jim had plucked off the flowers, one at a time, just a few months ago. The trees were still orla and the fruit forbidden to eat. Rather than have the trees devote energy to growing fruit that could not be eaten, plucking the flowers helped the trees grow better. They would do the same next seasons well, unless, God willing, the Third Temple was built and they would be able to bring the fruit to Jerusalem. Eliezer loved peaches but he could not even imagine how delicious they would be if eaten as part of the Temple service.
Next to the orchard were rows of low plastic greenhouses. Working in the greenhouses was painful as he was forced to squat and bend over, but the vegetables grew so fast and so nicely that it was too lucrative to stop. After a year of working together every day for a year, he and Jim didn’t need to discuss the work that lay ahead. They each picked a strip of greenhouse and entered, beginning to pick what lay at hand. Before stooping into the greenhouse, Eliezer looked at the ground between the greenhouses. Just a few months ago, Jim had helped him move all the rows over. Soil that had once been rocky desert had turned fertile from its time under the greenhouse, strips of weeds showing where the greenhouses had once stood. Eliezer was farming, growing for his own sake, but by doing so, the desert was coming to life.
By chance, Eliezer had chosen a greenhouse with peppers. The peppers were gorgeous, vibrant and round, shiny in the morning light. Jim had chosen a greenhouse with radishes, slightly harder to pick, clinging to the soil. Eliezer liked planting the radishes as they grew quickly and loved the rocky soil. And Rivka loved radishes, serving them with salt and lemon juice from the tree in the yard outside the caravan.
After five hours of sweaty work, they met up under the ancient twisted tree that marked one corner of Eliezer’s field. Eliezer had a strange, half-understood affinity for the tree. The field seems oriented towards it, the land created underneath it. The government had not been pleased with Eliezer’s petition to farm in this area but he had friends who knew the system and knew which forms the government could not reject or hold indefinitely for processing. They had to give him permission but they didn’t have to help him. The men from COGAT [ Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the military branch resppnsible for the civil administration in Judea and Samaria] were careful to survey the land, warning Eliezer that a satellite camera was watching and would immediately warn them if he plowed a row outside his allotted land. Eliezer thought they were exaggerating in order to intimidate him, but a friend in Maon showed him a letter from the military administration containing a printout of a satellite image of his house with printed lines showing where the structure extended half a meter beyond his building permit. He was in court, fighting a losing battle to save his house.
Eliezer was convinced and he marked the corners of his field with 50-gallon oil drums filled with concrete. By chance, the twisted oak was precisely in the corner. Eliezer had no idea what calculations the army used to determine why he got this piece of land and no other, but he imagined that the hand of God had guided the surveyor’s pencil when he drew the map, placing this ancient landmark precisely in one corner. Eliezer had taken this as a sign that this section of the field was good for trees so he had planted around it, one of each of the species that receive an extra blessing from Israel: olive, pomegranate, fig, and date palm. He had also planted the trees used in the four species for Sukkoth: etrog [citron], hadass [myrtle], and arava [willow], the date palm being the fourth.
Rivka had packed them a light meal and two plastic bottles of ice that were now melted but still cold. Fresh vegetable from the greenhouses filled out their meal. Much to Rivka’s dismay, Eliezer smoked, a tradition passed down from father to son in his Morrocan family. Jim engaged in his peculiar pastime of chewing tobacco, a habit Eliezer simply could not understand. Jim flatly refused to smoke and Eliezer’s lone attempt at putting tobacco in his mouth was horrible, forcing him to spit out shreds of tobacco for the rest of the afternoon.
“Did you hear back from the university?” Eliezer asked between puffs. Officially breaking the silence that had held between the two for the last five hours.
Jim nodded. “I’m in but they are still not sure they want to count this year as foreign studies credit.”
“You’d think that with a major in Middle Eastern studies and a minor in comparative religion, a whole year of living in the Holy Land would count for something,” Eliezer said. For various reasons that Eliezer preferred not to talk about, his army service had made him fluent in Arabic and his year abroad after the army had made him fluent in English. Raised in a small border town in the north, Rivka only spoke Hebrew so Jim had become surprisingly fluent from spending time with the family. But when they were alone, the two men spoke English.
“You’d think,” Jim said. “I guess their version of Middle Eastern studies doesn’t include learning about Israel. It doesn’t bother me. I’m in no rush to graduate, so long as what I am doing in the meantime is worthwhile. And working here for a year surely was.”
“What about transferring to that Bible college in Texas?” Eliezer asked. “If you major in something silly like Biblical archaeology, you could come back every year and visit.”
Jim spat out a brown string of tobacco juice. He understood that his Sephardi friend cared for him deeply and lame jokes about coming to visit were as close as he could come to expressing affection. “That sure is tempting. I would surely enjoy it more and I learned a lot about it while in Israel. But I kind of feel like it’s time for me to give something back to God, to start doing his work in this world by fixing what other people messed up.”
The two men sipped coffee, Jim finally breaking the silence. “Y’know, in a way, it’s not fair. If I want to do God’s will, I have to sit down and think about what that is, maybe even look around. I mean, going to church is great but if I want to do any more than that, it’s not so easy to know what that is. You have it easy. It’s all written down. You just live in Israel, farm the land, keep the sabbath, and the rest is easy.”
“If I’d been born one hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been so easy,” Eliezer said.
“No,” Jim agreed. “And to be honest, it isn’t all that easy today. I can attest to that.”
The sound of an engine made them look up. A shiny white jeep with red decals on the doors was turning off the road onto the dust track leading to Eliezer’s field. It skidded to a stop next to the tractor, gravel sliding under its tires. A tall, blond young woman jumped out of the driver’s side, running towards the two men. A younger man got out of the passenger side more slowly as an older Arab man struggled out from the back seat.
“How dare you?” the girl screamed at Eliezer, her European accent coming through despite her anger.
Jim stepped between her and Eliezer, instinctively protecting his friend. “How dare we what?”
She turned her rage onto Jim. “Our Arab friend came to us just now for help. His olive trees were chopped down. And now you’ve stolen his land.”
Eliezer remained silent, puffing on his cigarette. The Arab man approached, taking his place behind the raging young woman.
“Who are you?” Jim asked.
‘I am an intercessor for Justice in Palestine,” she said, pointing to the decals on the side of the jeep.
“Nice jeep,” he noted. “Wish I had one like that. It would really help on the farm. Back home in Tennessee, I had a jeep but it wasn’t nearly this nice.”
“Are you going to deny it?” the girl said, her hands clenched at her sides. She held up a digital camera, turning the screen so Jim could see. “This is his olive orchard, trees his great grandfather planted. Look at them. They are all chopped down. If that isn’t bad enough, this is his field.”
Eliezer said something in Arabic to the Arab man standing behind her.
“What did you say?” she demanded. “Don’t threaten him while I’m around. Do you understand?”
“I understand you very well,” Eliezer finally said. “If you are going to come to Israel…”
“Palestine!” she interjected.
“If you are going to come to Israel,” Eliezer resumed, “Maybe you should learn Hebrew. If you are going to work with the Arabs, maybe you should respect them enough to learn their language. I asked Hamad why he lied. I was here when he planted those trees. Do they really look hundreds of years old?”
“Don’t you accuse him of lying,” she yelled.
“Wait a second,” the young man said, taking a few steps towards Eliezer. “You know him?”
“Yes,” Eliezer said. “And if your friend had any manners, she would learn his name also. His name is Hamad. His daughter got stung by a scorpion last summer right over there. She was herding the sheep and I was making sure they didn’t get into my fields. One of my jobs in my unit in the army was to be the medic. I took care of her and took her home while Jim watched the goats.”
Eliezer turned to the Arab. “Hamad, why did you lie to the silly girl?”
Hamad tried to appear defiant but a scared and nervous look in his eyes gave him away. “I am not lie. You chop zeitim [olive] tree.”
Eliezer turned to the girl. “Tell me, those trees I chopped down. Did I chop them all the way down or only part of the way down?”
She glanced at the picture and a look of uncertainty passed over her face for a moment before anger once again took over. “Don’t try to get out of this. You chopped down his trees.”
“Let me see the picture,” the young man standing behind her said. She reluctantly handed him the camera. “What is the difference; half chopped down or chopped down all the way?” he asked.
Eliezer sighed. “Anyone who has an olive orchard has to trim them back every couple of years. It is pretty aggressive trimming and if you aren’t used to it, it looks like it is killing the trees. But that is how you take care of them. If you really want to kill them, you have to do a lot more than just cut off the branches.”
The boy inspected the photo. “Okay,” he finally admitted. “I am not going to take your word on this. I am going to speak to some people at the JP office. But you are taking over his land here.”
“Did Hamad show you any proof that this was his field?” Eliezer asked calmly.
“He said it has always belonged to his family,” the girl said. “For countless generations. There was no such thing as a land deed five hundred years ago.”
“Thus said Hashem, the God of Yisrael: Write down in a scroll all the words that I have spoken to you,” Jim began to recite. “For days are coming—declares Hashem—when I will restore the fortunes of My people Yisrael and Yehuda, said Hashem; and I will bring them back to the land that I gave their fathers, and they shall possess it.”
“What is that?” she said angrily. “Are you some kind of religious fanatic? Is he your cult leader?”
“That was Jeremiah,” Jim said. “Chapter thirty, verses two and three. The Prophet Jeremiah was telling the people of Israel that they were about to go out in exile so they best write up deeds for their land. That way, when they came back, there wouldn’t be any fights over who owned which piece of land. If you knew anything about anything, you would know that as soon as the cavemen learned to write, they were scratching land deeds into pieces of clay.”
“But this is still his field,” the young man said. “You don’t have a deed either.”
“Yes,” Eliezer said. “I have it at home. But we don’t need that.” He turned to Hamad and said something in Arabic.
“What did you say?” the girl asked.
“You see that metal box over there?” Eliezer said. “That’s the water main and the controls for the irrigation system. I told Hamad to go over and unlock it. If this is his field, then he would have the key.”
All eyes turned to Hamad who was steadfastly looking at the ground.
“So you just put a lock on his water,” the girl said, her voice cracking. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“I planted these trees, the first ones five years ago and the rest of them after that,” Eliezer said. “If this field belonged to Hamad’s family for so many generations, then where are their trees?”
“Lies and more lies,” she spat out.
“Where are you from?” Eliezer asked quietly.
“I am from Sweden,” she said. “I came here to fight the occupation.”
“You don’t seem to be helping Hamad all that much,” Jim said. “My guess is that you came here because you hate the Jews. It irks you that God brought them back to the land just like he promised.”
“I don’t hate Jews,” she insisted. “I hate the occupation.”
“The only occupation you hated enough to get up and leave Sweden is this one, probably because it makes you feel good about hating Jews,” Jim said. “And it isn’t an occupation. This land belongs to the Jews. The UN said so in 1947 and the Bible said so way before that.” He turned to Hamad. “Just ask Hamad what it says in the Koran about this land belonging to the Jews.”
Hamad looked up at the mention of his name. “Me go home,” he said.
“I’ll drive you home,” the girl said, turning around. “Let’s go,” she called over her shoulder.
“I think I’ll stay for a bit,” the young man said. “There are a few things I want to check out.”
She spun around. “Don’t you dare talk to these occupiers,’ she hissed.
He looked at the ground so Eliezer spoke up. “We can drive him back after we finish here. I need to go into town to pick up some supplies. I promise not to try to convert him.”
She glared at him until he looked up. Finally, she turned and got into the jeep, driving away as aggressively as she had arrived, Hamad hunched over in the back behind the empty passenger seat.
Eliezer turned to the young man. “I have a few more things I need to do and then we can leave. We need to go back to my home first and then we can go to Kiryat Arba in my car.”
He walked away, disappearing between the trees.
“My name’s Jim,” he said, holding out his hand. “I hail from Tennessee.”
“My name’s Jake,” he said, noting Jim’s calloused firm grip. “I come from Boston. I am taking time off from BU, working for JP for credit in Middle Eastern studies.”
“Wow!” Jim exclaimed. “That’s my major too. I’m not sure they’re going to give me credit, though, in which case I just wasted a whole year. I mean, I learned about a different kind of farming than we have in Tennessee and now I can study the Bible in the original Hebrew. But I just tagged another year onto my time in college.”
“BU’s Middle East program is one of the best in the country,” Jake said. “Last semester, Riyad Mansour, the Ambassador to the UN from Palestine, gave a whole series of lectures. It was brilliant. We were supposed to have another series from Leila Khaled but that got canceled.”
“Wasn’t she that terrorist lady?” Jim asked.
“I don’t think so,” Jake said. “I heard about them doing that at another university.”
“I want to show you something,” Jim said, leading Jake across the field. They followed the contour of the land, arriving at a low point that was the meeting place of several natural folds. A path had been cut through the brush and Jim led the way, arriving at a large flat rock. In the center of the rock was a circular hole.
“Eliezer showed me this when I first got here,” Jim said. “I told him I was into archaeology and he said this hole was ancient. I sort of believed him but I don’t think even he knew how right he was.”
“This isn’t archaeology,” Jake said. “It’s a hole.”
Jim gave him a strange look before going on. “When he showed it to me, it was filled to the top with garbage. I figured it would be good practice so I started to empty it out, a little at a time. I wasn’t trying to date anything so I didn’t have to be as careful as they are on real digs. But I wanted to get a feel for what it was like to dig into the past. I figured that this was a garbage dump and there was nothing worth anything here so it wouldn’t matter.”
Jim pointed off to the side where piles were carefully arranged.
“The opening was barely wide enough for me to skitter on down and when I got down over my head, the air wasn’t very good. But that is just when things got interesting.”
Jim began to point at items in the piles, the first containing everyday rubbish similar to what would be found in any home: diapers, rusty cans, old clothes. Mixed in for good measure was the skeletal remains of a goat.
“This pile is fairly recent,” Jim said. “But just below that was a lot of dirt. That was the part I couldn’t figure out. This here is a well. All the water from the fields flows right down into it. I woulda thought that anyone who live here or who was just passing through from time to time woulda wanted to keep it clear. But all the dirt I found was too much to be accidental or just from natural causes. Someone filled this in on purpose.”
Jim took a few steps over to a pile of pottery sherds.
“These have ancient Hebrew letters on them,” he said. “It’s hard to read but after a while, I got it. There’s nothing here that a museum would be interested in, I don’t think. And I can’t take it back home with me.”
He pointed up to a ridge overlooking the waterhole.
“That’s called derech avot [the way/path of the fathers],” Jim said. “That’s the path the forefathers took when walking from the south of Israel to Jerusalem. It starts down in Beersheba. A lot of people passed by here on their way to Solomon’s Temple.”
“If it ever existed,” Jake interjected.
Jim stared at him for a few moments. “Oh, Solomon’s Temple existed. You would have to be a special kind of stupid to think otherwise.”
“There’s no proof,” Jake insisted.
Jim held up a round piece of metal. “This is a half-shekel. It says in the Bible that every Jewish man over the age of twenty had to bring one of these to the Temple every year. I found it near the bottom, under a bunch of pottery pieces.”
“It still doesn’t prove anything,” Jake said.
“Well, maybe not,” Jim said. “But I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Hamad doesn’t have one of these. And neither did any of his grandparents. And if they did, it sure wouldn’t have no Hebrew writing on it.”
Jake stared at the ancient coin, working his jaws but unable to answer.
“I can’t take this home so I’m going to give it to Eliezer to hold for me,” Jim said. “Who knows? Maybe by the time I come back, he will have used it already in the Third Temple.”
Eliezer’s voice calling out to them came drifting across the field. The two young men turned and began walking back, each lost in his own thoughts. By the time they arrived at the tractor, Eliezer was in the driver’s seat, the heavy diesel engine warming up. Jim scrambled up, instructing Jake where to place his feet in order to climb up to the other wheel cover. With the two young men on either side, Eliezer drove home.
Just as he parked the tractor, Rivka came running out of the house.
“Eliezer,” she yelled. “They’re burning the farm. I saw it on the security camera but you didn’t answer your phone.”
Eliezer fired up the tractor again and turned around, heading back the way he had just come. They could see the pillars of smoke well before they arrived. Once lit, the plastic sheeting of the greenhouses burned with a vengeance. The countryside was not dry enough for a raging wildfire. Armed with long sticks with flat rubber flaps at the end, the three men managed to put out the worst parts of the blaze. Most of the older trees survived but some of the younger trees were seriously damaged. Gasoline had been poured on his special orchard of holy trees and they were all a total loss.
Jim looked up and saw that another blaze was starting in the valley. They ran to tend to it but ended up standing upwind, watching helplessly as it consumed the brush.
“They must have been watching us while we put out the fire up there,” Jim said. He suddenly caught a glimpse of something and ran into the smoldering patch.
“They filled it in,” he yelled, grief and smoke choking his voice. “They filled in the water hole. Why’d they do that?”
Finally, the three men walked slowly back to the tractor. When they arrived back at home, Eliezer drove Jake to the army checkpoint outside of Hebron, silent the entire way. The JP office was in the Arab section of the city and Eliezer was not permitted to enter. Jake walked back to the JP office where he was greeted like the prodigal son.
The young woman stood off to the side, not quite ready to forgive Jake.
“Why do you smell like smoke?” one of the other European volunteers asked.
“I helped put out a wildfire in that field we went to today,” Jake said.
The young girl’s eyes sparked as she was suddenly interested in Jake again. “That Israeli farmer burned down the Arab’s field?” she exclaimed.
“Well, no,” Jake said. “Not exactly. I think it was the other way around.”
“What do you mean?” she said sharply. “The field belonged to the Arab. We need to write up a release and get it on the internet. What was the Arab’s name?”
“Hamad,” Jake said.
She sat down at a desk, working at a computer as she spoke to Jake over her shoulder.
“You know, Jake. I was worried at first. I thought you weren’t as committed to fighting the occupation as you should be. You did very well today.”
“Why did you think that?” Jake asked, feeling his insides squirm.
She turned around in her chair to face him. “Because you were raised in a Zionist home.”
“Yeah, my folks were Zionist,” Jake said. “But it seemed good back then. I had a card shaped like a tree with slots for quarters. Every year, I saved up my quarters and filled up the card. Just before tu’beshvat [the new year for trees], I took it to Hebrew school and got a certificate saying I had planted a tree in Israel.”
An image of smoldering trees flashed through his mind.
“You were a Zionist,” she said angrily.
“I am Jewish and when I was a kid, that meant being Zionist.”
“Exactly,” she said. “That is why we cannot trust Jews. All over the world, they conspire to kill the Palestinians. You need to repent for what you did when you were young and what your parents did. And your parents before that. All Jews are Zionists and if they don’t admit that they are murderers, then they are all guilty.”
She turned back to the computer, leaving Jacob to stew in his own thoughts.
When Hamad arrived at home, his wife was waiting outside.
“We have a guest, she said. “Saeb is waiting in the living room.”
Hamad entered the living room, choosing to sit on the carpet. He smelled like smoke and his clothes were covered in ash and dirt. Saeb was sipping coffee.
“I am pleased,” Saeb said. “After you became friends with the Yahud last year, I was worried.”
“I wasn’t his friend,” Hamad said.
“He helped your daughter,” Saeb said. “I thought you might want to engage in what some call normalization.”
“No,” Hamad said. “Of course not.”
Saeb held up his cell phone. “Did you see what the European group is saying?”
Hamad looked at the screen of the phone but shook his head. “I do not understand English.”
“No matter,” Saeb said, putting the phone in his coat pocket. “Tell me, Hamad, you are friends with Halid Tamimi?”
“He is my cousin,” Hamad said.
“There are rumors he wants to sell his house and field that are next to the road,” Saeb said.
“No one would buy it,” Hamad said.
“Not so,” Saeb said. “Someone told me that there is a Jewish organization speaking with Halid. You need to explain to Halid that this would be a mistake.”
Hamad looked at Saeb, afraid to open his mouth. His wife came into the room, putting a cup of sweet mint tea on the table in front of her husband. He sipped the tea, trying not to notice Saeb’s eyes on him.