October 11, 2004
Last week, during the Succot holiday, Hebron hosted well over 40,000 visitors to the city of Abraham. The streets teemed full of people, women, children, men, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood, from site to site. Special tours of the kasba, usually off-limits to Jews, added an exceptional flavor to the festivities, as well as group visits to the Cave of Otniel ben Knaz, the first judge in Eretz Yisrael, thousands of years ago. And of course, let’s not forget the main attraction, Ma’arat HaMachpela, filled to the brim, with crowds waiting on line outside for a chance to pray inside. Loudspeakers outside the 2,000 year old structure requested that visitors shorten their prayers in order to allow others to worship also, without having to wait hours on line.
In short, it was an amazing week, a true sign of Am Yisrael’s support for Hebron’s Jewish community. And not only that. Without any doubt, all those tens of thousands who visited Hebron, as well as other communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, fully espouse continued Jewish presence in Neve Dekalim, Kfar Darom, Netzarim, and all the other heroic communities in Gush Katif. The over 8,500 people living in Gush Katif should know that Am Yisrael stands with them and behind them, forever.
Following such an uplifting week, you might expect that this week would be something of a letdown, getting back to the normalcy of a regular week. But we are far from that. Hebron’s spirit keeps reaching higher and higher. Last night was one such example of Hebron reaching for the stars.
The evening didn’t begin after sunset. Actually it began early yesterday afternoon, with a large group of people running around outside Ma’arat HaMachpela, in the Machpela gardens. There, tables and chairs were unloaded, and a caterer began practicing his expertise: transforming an outdoors garden-park into an exquisite banquet hall. The tables were adorned, serving areas set up, and after a few hours of hard work, everything was ready.
Next to Ma’arat HaMachpela a Chupa, or bridal canopy, was assembled. And a little ways away, a white chair was placed under a tree on the Machpela lawn. A couple of hours later the young bride sat in that chair, waiting for her soon-to-be husband to come get her.
But this was not to be an ordinary wedding. In truth, I don’t know if there is ever an ‘ordinary wedding.’ Every wedding is special. But sometimes, a wedding represents more than a personal affair between two people, two families. So it was last night.
In truth, last night’s wedding begins, maybe almost a hundred years ago, when Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, later to be Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, arrived in the ‘Holy Land,’ in Eretz Yisrael. But if I begin there, this commentary will stretch out over a few weeks, rather than a few minutes. So I’ll begin over a decade ago, when Rav Kook’s grandson, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan and his wife Chaya, came to live in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. Rabbi Ra’anan, a brilliant Torah scholar in his own right, was a very humble man, lived a very simple life, and traveled daily to study at the Jerusalem Torah center his grandfather founded many years earlier, Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. The Ra’anan’s lived in an ‘ordinary’ two-room caravan home in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood, with six other families. He was a happy man, a constant smile covering his face, who knew all of the children in Hebron by name, and loved to give them candy, always found in his pockets.
It was just over six years ago, at about eleven o’clock at night. Sixty-three year old Rabbi Ra’anan bade goodnight to his wife, who was sitting in their small living room, and started to get ready for his evening’s rest. Only hours before, having returned from Jerusalem, he participated in a wedding outside Ma’arat HaMachpela. He was photographed there, radiating joy, as always. He was invited to stay for the party, but preferred to go home to be with his wife, and to rest in preparation for the following day’s trip back to Jerusalem.
As he was getting ready for bed, an Arab terrorist suddenly jumped through the room’s open window, and began stabbing the Rabbi. Screaming, Rabbi Ra’anan ran into the living room, with the terrorist following. There, a macabre tug-of-war developed between the terrorist and Chaya Ra’anan, both pulling at the Rabbi, in between them. The terrorist, knife in hand, continued stabbing the Rabbi, until he collapsed. He looked for a moment at Chaya, and then fled through the back window, but not before he ignited and hurled a fire bomb inside the Rabbi’s room.
Chaya quickly pulled her fatally wounded husband outside, to escape the flames of the quickly spreading fire. Others in the neighborhood were able to extinguish the fire before it spread throughout the neighborhood, but they were unable to save their beloved neighbor. Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan was buried the next day, early Friday afternoon, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Temple Mount in Jerusalem, next to his grandfather, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, and his uncle, Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook. Earlier he was eulogized before thousands, outside his grandfather’s yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav.
Chaya Ra’anan continued to live in her caravan home in Tel Rumeida. The room where her husband was killed was transformed into a study center, and her son-in-law, Rabbi Yisrael Shlissel, Rabbi of a small community in the Shomron, began traveling daily to Hebron to teach young married men, preparing for Rabbinic exams. One morning, while driving on the TransJudea road, a few kilometers outside of Hebron, Rabbi Shlissel suddenly saw an armed Arab standing in the road, in front of his car. The terrorist opened fire with his automatic weapon, at the car. Rabbi Shlissel, having no where to go, simply ducked, putting his head down under the dashboard, with his foot still on the gas pedal. Miraculously he was not hit.
You might expect that following such a traumatic event, Rabbi Shlissel would have bid farewell to teaching in Hebron. Perhaps he might even have suggested that his mother-in-law, Rabbi Ra’anan’s widow, join him and his wife elsewhere.
Well, maybe someone else, but not the Shlissels or the Ra’anans. A short time later Rabbi Yisrael Shlissel, together with his wife, the Ra’anan’s daughter, Tzippy, and their many children, moved into the Avraham Avinu neighborhood in Hebron. They too had to weather barrages of bullets, shot at their home from the Abu Sheneh hills, less than a kilometer away. But, like the rest of us, their faith carried the day, and they began living regular lives in Hebron.
Last night Rabbi Yisrael and Tzippy Shlissel, together with Chaya Ra’anan, and at least a thousand other people, participated in the wedding of the Shlissel’s oldest son, Shimshon, to a lovely young woman, Miriam Haas, from Beit El. The wedding, in the plaza outside Ma’arat HaMachpela, was a tremendously joyous affair, which included participation of Rabbi Avraham Shapira, former Israeli Chief Rabbi, and one of the undisputed leaders of the nationalist-religious movement today.
The throng sang traditional wedding tunes as the Rabbi married Shimshon and Miriam, only meters from the cave purchased by Abraham, almost 4,000 years ago, here in Hebron. As the ceremony ended, a friend of mine whispered to me, “I get the feeling that the grandfather (Rabbi Ra’anan) is here with them.” I added, “not only is he here, but the great-great grandfather (Rabbi Kook), is certainly here too.”
And as the crowd sang, “Asher Barah Sasson v’Simcha” – (G-d, who created joy and happiness), I could almost see them, Rav Shlomo Ra’anan, together with his grandfather, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, and his uncle, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, singing and dancing together, in the shadows of Ma’arat HaMachpela, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, illuminating the site with an overwhelming sanctity of ‘sasson v’simcha’, joy and happiness, together with the bride and groom, the ‘chatan v’kallah.’
With blessings from Hebron.