The Cave
November 29, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Dr. Barnaki gasped for breath. He could not believe he was actually entering the forbidden cave. Fear gripped his heart as he remembered all of the myths and stories that he had heard as a child. Like archaeologists before him who had entered the tomb of Tutankhamen, the great Pharaoh of Egypt, he now was entering the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the cave of the royalty of Israel …  and of Islam.  

A professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Barnaki understood the full significance of his expedition into this underground dwelling. Above the cave, the area was divided into two prayer spaces, a synagogue and a mosque. Holiness radiated from this place on Earth. Whether one was a believer or secular, the intensity of the energy was palpable.

His expedition was illegal and done under the cover of night through an unknown entry-way. After capturing the city of Hebron and its religious and archaeological treasures during the 1967 Six Day War, including the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, also called Machpelah, Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, gave the keys to the holy center to the Muslim Waqf, which held that non-Muslims were forbidden to enter.

This was a contentious place indeed, disputed territory claimed both by Israel and by the Palestinian Arabs. This site in the middle of Hebron, also called Kiriat Arba, was in the heartland of biblical Israel. It was also a place where the Arabs are a majority of the population.  Nevertheless, a small group of religious Zionists had founded a settlement in this area to claim a Jewish stake in this land. Heavily guarded and constantly fearful of terrorist attacks from the surrounding Palestinian Arab areas, this was a gated community in the most extreme sense of the term.

This was also the place of the most infamous violence between Jews and Arabs. “Pogrom” is a term usually reserved for anti-Jewish violent riots in Eastern Europe. Hebron was an exception for there had been a violent pogrom in Hebron in which many Jews were mercilessly murdered by marauding Arabs. It was also the place where a Jewish doctor, who had immigrated to Israel from the United States, decided to take matters into his own hands and spray bullets at Muslims praying in the mosque above the cave. Much blood had been spilled above this cave over the question of its ownership and, indeed, ownership of the entire land. Beneath the mosque and the synagogue was Machpelah, where Isaac, the father of the Jews and Ishmael, the father of the Arabs had buried their father Abraham together as bothers. Barnaki could almost sense Abraham’s heartache that his children were killing each other. Also buried in this cave were Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah. Rachel died while on the road and was buried on the way to Bethlehem where Jewish tradition teaches that she cries on behalf of her exiled and suffering children and pleads with God on their behalf.

This cave existed and was a burial place before Abraham bought it from Efron the Hittite for 400 shekels of silver, an exorbitant sum for those days, in order to bury his wife Sarah and to establish this cave as an ancestral plot. One wonders who was buried in this cave before Sarah. One wonders why Abraham paid so much money for this cave and plot of land. Abraham was a businessman and a military general, after all. One finds it hard to believe that he would be so easily swindled.

What unknown qualities did this cave hold? Legend holds that there is magic to this cave, perhaps even a doorway from this world into Eden. Some believe that this is a place where one could come into contact and speak not only with those buried in the cave but with all of the ancestors. According to legend, one who entered too far deep into the cave risked never returning to our world. “Could this be true or was this just a story to keep out grave robbers and the like?” Barnaki thought to himself. “How similar were these stories to those told about the pyramids of the Pharaohs.”   

As Barnaki entered the cave, darkness fell over his eyes and a new type of light illuminated his way. It was as if he was in another world. His eyes no longer worked and yet he knew exactly where he was, where he was going, and what was in front of him. He had studied the site using photographs and maps provided by those who had entered the cave before him. For various reasons, they could only go so deep, but he planned to go even deeper.  

Deeper and deeper he went. He arrived at a circular room with coins and pieces of broken pottery on the floor. The pottery contained inscriptions in ancient Hebrew script. This script had not been used in over two thousand years and yet here it was before him, an archaeological treasure. Barnaki picked up coins that lay upon the ground. He placed them in the palm of his hand. Among the coins were modern Israeli liras and shekels. This made sense since it was customary to throw coins deep into the cave like into a wishing well.  

What surprised Barnaki were the other coins he had in the palm of his hand; a Maccabean coin, a coin from the Bar Kochba rebellion against the occupying Romans and a coin with an inscription in ancient Hebrew which read 
שנת ג למלכו של המלך שלמה
The third year of the rule of King Solomon. This was a First Temple period coin, undeniable proof of the Jewish people’s long history in and claim to the land.

Upon the ground were also notes such as people also place in the Western Wall with people’s hopes that God will read their prayers and answer them. From the circular room, Barnaki entered a long corridor which led to a staircase. He climbed up the stairs only to be blocked by a stone wall in the middle of the stairs.

“Who would place a wall here?” Barnaki thought to himself, “During which historical period was the wall built?”  The materials and design of this wall identified it as neither the biblical architecture that he had encountered in the cave so far nor of the architecture of King Herod of Judaea nor of the Muslim minarets built after the Muslim conquest from the Crusaders under the leadership of Salahadin. This wall stood on its own as a unique structure.  Barnaki pushed against the wall and it moved to reveal a small space, barely enough for a small person to maneuver through. Barnaki was no body builder and his small frame came in handy that day as he slid through the small space.

As he crossed to the other side, Barnaki could not believe his eyes. Before him was a beautiful carob tree and a river with waters as blue as the sky, flowing through the cave, but with no end. It just flowed and flowed as if there was no end to the cave, no walls, no beginning and no end. He walked forward and as he did so, the cave became less dark and more full of light, less brown and more green with grasses and shrubbery. It was as if he was no longer in the cave. The river continued to flow through the most beautiful, greenest garden he had ever seen. He saw trees all around him with fruits that seemed to glow. The aroma, the fresh air, and the beauty were exhilarating. In the far off distance, Barnaki saw that the river converged with three other rivers. Thirsty, he put his hands into the river to gather water to drink. Below the river, he realized, was Lapis Lazuli, also called Shoham, a beautiful, semi-precious stone of blue with bubbles of white, like a pure blue sky with fluffy white clouds floating through it. His perception of his surroundings changed as Heaven and Earth, the blue river and a miraculous blue sky above, became one.  

Suddenly, he felt something on his shoulder. He looked down to see a hand. He turned around and before him stood an old man with a white beard and the kindest face he had ever seen. Isaac Barnaki immediately felt connected to this stranger. “Come, walk with me,” said the man.  
For hours they walked and talked. Barnaki now understood everything; why he was there, who he was, where he had come from, the meaning of his life, and the meaning of all existence. They reached an opening and the old man said, “And now you must go back to where you came from and remember little of our conversation and of what you have just experienced.” “Why?” Barnaki asked. “It is not your time,” answered the wise face before him. “Who are you?” Isaac asked, even though he already knew the answer. “I am Abraham, your father.” 

Barnaki walked through the opening to the world that he was a part of, but he was forever changed. He had touched Eden. He had been touched by Abraham. He had entered the cave of Machpelah and returned to our world to tell the tale.

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My Brother’s Keeper
November 17, 2016

A modern midrash for our time based on Parashat Vayera, Parashat Toldot, Rashi’s commentary, Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 89b, and current events
By Rabbi Royi Shaffin
Isaac and Ishmael were playing together. They played hide and go seek. They built sand castles. They laughed together and played together and loved one another, but their mothers hated one another. They were half brothers of the same father, Abraham, but not of the same mother.

One day, the rumor was running through the camp that Abraham was sending away Hagar and her son, Ishmael. The boys were playing when they overheard people talking about it from a nearby tent. Tears started to flow from Ishmael’s eyes. “Our father loves you more than he loves me,” Ishmael said in a tearful voice. “No, this can’t be right. Our father wouldn’t do such a thing,” said Isaac in an attempt to comfort his brother. “It is true. It is true,” said Ishmael, “Your mother made him do it. Why does your mother hate my mother so much?” “I don’t know,” Isaac replied.
“I have an idea,” Isaac said excitedly, “I will pretend to be you. That way, no one will be able to tell us apart. He will not be able to send you away. I will put goat skin on my arms so that I will appear hairy like you and I will wear your clothes so that I will smell like the fields in which you work. I will try to speak with your deep voice and I will tell him that I am you.”
Some time later, God wished to elevate Abraham so God told him, “Take your son.”

Abraham replied, “I have two sons.”

God said, “The one”.

Abraham replied, “I love each of them as if he were my only child.”

God said, “The one you love the most.”

Abraham insisted, “I love them both equally.”

God finally clarified, ” Isaac.”

God continued, “And elevate him to a higher status upon one of the mountains that I will show you.”

Abraham went searching for Isaac, but he could not find him. What he found were two Ishmael’s.  
“Which of my sons are you?” He asked one of them.
“I am Ishmael,” he answered.  
“And who are you?” Abraham persisted.
“I am also Ishmael,” the other one said.
Frustrated, Abraham demanded, “Which of you is Isaac? A great honor awaits you. Come with me.”
Silence.
Abraham turned around to go back to his tent and try again later.
With his father’s back turned so that he could not see him and distinguish him from his brother, Isaac called out, “Father, I refuse to be honored while you send away my brother and he suffers in silence. God has taught me that…
I AM MY BROTHER’S KEEPER.”

Lech Lecha – A Poem In Search of Oneself
November 13, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin
Lech Lecha
Go to you 
Go for you
You! Go out yonder.
Lech Lecha
Walkety walk
Walkie Talkie
Lech Lecha
Go out
Go in
Go deep inside yourself
To find your self 
Turn yourself
Inside
Outside
Like Origami
Twist and turn
Wear your inside on the outside 
Lech Lecha
Show your emotions 
Be real
To yourself
And to others
Lech Lecha
Go to a place you have never been before
A place you have never seen
Trust in God
Lech Lecha
Try new things
Explore the world 
Meet new people
Find commonality with people you think you have nothing in common with
Lech Lecha
Feel emotion 
Feel other people’s emotions 
Be an open heart
Lech Lecha
Be like Abraham
Do that which is right 
Smash idols of apathy and immorality 
Lech Lecha
Don’t just sit there
Don’t just sit in one place 
View life as a gift, a journey, an adventure 
Sieze every moment 
Lecha Lecha
Dream
Pray
Hope 
Go out and make your most fantastic dreams come true 
Lech Lecha to a place that only God can show you… and you shall be a blessing.

Zimri and Cosbi: What’s In A Name
July 26, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Zimri starred out at the starry sky waiting for her to come toward him. There, as the sun set and a sliver of the moon was barely visible, his desert flower appeared out of a cloud of mystical dust.
They ran toward one another, embraced and kissed passionately as tears of joy came down the eyes of Cozbi, the Midianite princess dressed in red and green and black and blue, gold and silver, bronze, tachash, and shoham stones. Her hair was braided and decorated with semi-precious stones and she exuded a fragrance of myrrh and aloe with a tiny scent of date honey and citrus. Her hair was still wet from bathing in water from the desert spring.
Her dark complexion and bright blue eyes were intoxicating for Zimri who could not take his eyes off her. As a prince of his Israelite tribe, Shimon, he wore the emblems of the tribe and the armor of a warrior. He had served in Moses’ and Joshua’s army and had fought valiantly in the war against the Amalekites but now he was at odds with the administration.
Pinchas, the priest had gone to the highest level in his rampage against intermarriage. All those who had married or cohabited with Midianite women are traitors, he claimed. They need to be excommunicated and thrown out of the camp. Zimri thought this was ridiculous, especially since Moses himself was married to Tziporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest, Jethro.
Pinchas went before Moses and Aaron and claimed that the Midianites would lure Israelites to abandon God and worship foreign gods. Among the accused was Zimri. “I haven’t done any such thing,” Zimri had countered during his trial.
Pinchas frightened the judges, ” The sickness plaguing our people is punishment for our relationships with Midianite women.” “If that is the case,” Zimri countered, “I ask again, what about Moses and Tziporah? Why is Moses unaffected?” Silence fell upon the court both because there was no answer to the question and because the fear of God came upon them. Miriam had already been punished severely for speaking against the divinely appointed leader.  
Zimri was free to go, but Pinchas looked at him with a red face full of rage as they left the courtroom.
Thoughts of that dreadful day in court faded as Zimri and Cozbi walked together in the now moonlit night sky and Cozbi came unto Zimri in his tent. They fell into each other’s arms as the passion between them increased …
Lying next to him, still breathing heavily, Cozbi asked, “Zimri, do you really think this is going to work? We are so different.”
“Are we?” he responded.
“You are an Israelite and I am a Midianite,” Cozbi cried.
“What’s in a name?” he said. 
“We are of different tribes and they don’t like each other,” she said sadly.
“Are we not both of the tribe of Abraham?”
“Zimri, you know what I mean.”
“Yes, and I know that we are making too many enemies. We cannot be a nation that dwells apart all the time. Besides, how can we be a light unto the nations and who will see how beautiful the tents of Jacob are, if we close ourselves off to everyone else? And why should the children of Abraham be enemies? That really makes no sense.”
“You are right of course, but Pinchas is pointing to our worship of other gods. Maybe that is why Tziporah is accepted. She worships your God and your God alone.”
“Yes, your tribe has also always worshipped the God of Abraham. You just added other gods as well.”
“Yes. But we never took those other gods seriously. Do you think they will leave us alone if I officially go before Moses and Aaron and tell them that I vow to worship the God of Abraham and no other?”
“Maybe.”
“Then tomorrow morning, I’m going to get up and make an appointment to go before the court…Do you like crimson?”
“What?”
“Crimson?”
“Sure. Why do you ask?”
“I was thinking of our wedding. We should have crimson tablecl….”
A sharp stomach pain interrupted her thought….