by Alana Alpert, rabbinical student
In Masechet Brachot, R. Hiyya bar Abba says: “A person should always pray in a place that has windows.” Why do we need to pray in a place that has windows? Obviously because we need to look outside. But more than that – we need to pray in a place that has windows because true prayer is not just introspection; it requires engagement with what is beyond the synagogue’s walls.
There are several reasons why Parshat Hayei Sarah encourages us to reflect on prayer. The first is because it is in this parsha that Isaac goes out to the field, “la’suach”, which is interpreted as meditative prayer.
Indeed, it is Isaac’s prayer that sets the precedent for the daily afternoon mincha service.
Parshat Hayei Sarah also makes me think of prayer because the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, which is purchased by Abraham in Parshat Hayei Sarah, has become a place of prayer.
Let’s open a few windows and explore what is going on outside of the walls of our ancestor’s tomb:
Through one window we see the Casbah, the Old City of Hebron. Most of the shutters of the shops are closed since long and unpredictable curfews make it nearly impossible for businesses to function. We see metal grates hanging over many Palestinian homes, placed there to catch the garbage and rocks thrown down by the settlers above.
Through another window we see Shuhada Street. Once a center of commerce full of life, it is now empty. Palestinian families who have the bad luck of a door of their house leading onto that street have had that door sealed shut by the army.
Through another window we will see graffiti: “death to arabs” is scattered among the Stars of David.
The third reason I think about prayer when I look at Parshat Hayei Sarah is because Midrash Tanhuma, when reflecting on the parsha, tells the most beautiful midrash.
Discussing the importance of kavanah, mindfulness or intention during prayer, the rabbis declare that Abraham is the highest exemplar. They say, “…And nobody inclined their mind and heart like our Father Abraham.” The example the rabbis bring of Abraham’s mindful and heartfelt prayer amazes me: they point to Abraham challenging God.
When God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness, he fights for the innocent, claiming that there must be some number of righteous people within the city’s gates. He asks: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?… Far be it from you to do a thing like that!… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
What if we chose to emulate our ancestors in life instead of guarding them in death?
The hevre of Project Hayei Sarah works to honor the memory of Abraham as he was at his best: speaking up for the innocent, fighting for justice. This Shabbat, thousands of Jews will travel to Hebron to pray at Maarat hamachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. For Palestinian residents, this weekend in the Jewish calendar means increased restrictions on movement and heightened risk of violence. As protest & tikkun (repair), members of Project Hayei Sarah will be opening windows into the situation in Hebron in shuls, minyans, schools, shabbat tables, and blogs. To hear more of our Torah, visit our website for dozens of video divrei Torah. Please “like” us on Facebook to support our work to reclaim this parsha towards peace & justice in Hebron.
May we find what true prayer requires of us:
the strength to look at what is going on around us, and the chutzpah to demand that things be different.
May we open a window:
educate ourselves & others about the situation in Hebron,
open our hearts to the suffering in the holy city of Hebron.
May we find that opening this window will do more than challenge us to ask hard questions — may it bring in air & light & hope for a better future for all of us.
Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.
Alana with Nawal and Leila from Women in Hebron, an embroidery and weaving cooperative in the Old City