Keep Dreaming: A riddle for UNESCO

The cause of peace is not being served by your composition of new riddles as to who is buried in ancient tombs.

November 26, 2010 15:17
Rachel's Tomb

Rachel's Tomb 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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To: Irina Bokova
Director-General, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Dear Ms. Bokova,
I’ve got a riddle for you. Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?

As you didn’t grow up in the US, it’s unlikely that you’re familiar with this rather nonsensical brainteaser that has become part of American folklore. So I’m going to tell you the answer. But first, I want to tell you a story.

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Centuries ago, there was a tradesman who lugged his wares from village to village on the back of a donkey. The animal was his only steady companion, and over the years he naturally grew very fond of him. One day, as the two were climbing a hill, the donkey collapsed and died. After burying him by the side of the road, our protagonist sat there and wept, heartbroken as he considered how he might manage on his own. Two passersby took notice of the man, saw the fresh grave and enquired, “A friend of yours?”

“What a friend!” he responded. “What was too heavy for me to bear, he would willingly carry himself, without ever a complaint. When I would go astray, he would always return me to the proper path. I don’t know how I’ll be able to go on without him.”

The two travelers listened to the merchant’s praises, did what they could to console him and went on their way.

“A truly righteous man lies buried there,” said one to the other.

“Yes,” nodded his companion, “and without so much as even a simple stone over his head.”

The two determined to place a monument on the grave and began tending it regularly, searching their own hearts as they did so. As others saw how their time at the site affected these men so profoundly, they, too, began to come to it to meditate and pray. Word of the powers of the burial place began to spread, and eventually an extravagant sanctuary was built over it to accommodate the pilgrims who came from far and wide, there to be fortified in grappling with life’s ordeals.

Years later, having acquired a new donkey and once more happy with his lot, the merchant happened this way again. Recognizing the two men who had comforted him so long ago, he gaped open-mouthed at what he saw before him. “What... what is all this?” he stammered.

“Your great and holy friend,” they explained. “We come here to do him honor and he, in turn, looks upon us in favor from his heavenly abode.”

The tradesman broke out in uncontrollable laughter. “My dear friends,” he informed them, “you are praying to a jackass.”

Incensed, the devotees fell upon the heretic and demanded he retract the insult. He would only tell them the truth. They, of course, refused to believe him and, enraged by the sacrilege, stoned him on the spot and went on worshiping.

The answer to the riddle, then, is that it doesn’t much matter who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, or if anyone is buried there at all. By extension, I suppose I’ve got to admit that the same might be said about Rachel’s Tomb.

BUT OUR parable doesn’t justify the inanity of your board’s recent decision to declare a spot that for centuries has been referred to even in the Muslim world as “Kubat Rachel” as a Palestinian cultural site. And it certainly doesn’t explain the absurdity of your declaration that the structure is actually the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, which no one had ever even heard of prior to its invention in 1996, and that you now claim is “endangered as a result of Israeli occupation.” Nor does it substantiate your demand that the edifice be removed from Israel’s list of national heritage sites. Quite the contrary on all counts.

While neither you nor I know if anyone, never mind who, is really buried at this place that has suddenly become so controversial, I do know what I read in last week’s Torah portion. And so do you: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day” (Genesis 35:19-20).

And you know as well that over the centuries no one has ever claimed otherwise. In fact, throughout recorded history the spot has been universally venerated as the final resting place of our matriarch by Christian, Muslim and Jew alike. A remarkably extensive collection of personal testimonies, declarations and legal documents exists attesting to this from the fourth century onward, including several issued by prominent Arab leaders.

Does any of this mean that Rachel is really buried there? No, I haven’t forgotten the allegory of our traveling salesman, but neither should Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was he who prompted your irrational pronouncement with his claim that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.”

On second thought, perhaps your pronouncement was not irrational at all, only ridiculous. Every civilization, culture and religion has its myths that fortify, making perception more irrefutable than reality, belief more compelling than truth. And what you have attempted to do is undermine one of ours.

You have calculatingly acted as do those who would deny the Holocaust or delegitimize the very right of the Jewish people to a homeland of its own. Undoubtedly, you have also knowingly struck at one of those myths that is inextricably tied to our longing for return. “A cry is heard in Ramah..., Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted... Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears, for there is reward for your labor... Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:15-17).

These verses are integral to the Jewish people’s narrative of national redemption, embraced by the left and the right, the religious and the secular among us. They have sustained us throughout the centuries and are not subject to censorship. This blatant and transparent attempt on your part to sever us from our history shall prove futile.

Wherever the borders might finally be drawn on the map of that elusive peace agreement that we so fervently desire, we will be pained by the inevitable necessity of withdrawing from parts of the territorial cradle of our consciousness. The vast majority of us are ready for this, but you are not bringing either side to the conflict any closer to the point of compromise by denying the legitimacy of our narrative in favor of theirs. Be warned: Mutual recognition is a prerequisite for conciliation. The cause of peace is not being served by your composition of new riddles as to who is buried in ancient tombs.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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