Sarah died. In the entire history of the Jewish people to this point, this is the first time we read about someone dying and being buried. Abel died back in Eden, but we know nothing about where he was buried. The Torah spends a lot of real estate on the story of what Abraham does after Sarah dies. The entire chapter 23 of Genesis, 20 verses, tell the story in great detail. It was really important.
Abraham was a resident alien in Hebron, so he had to jump through some legal hoops to get the cave of Machpelah all squared away as a family burial site. Only Rachel was laid to rest elsewhere. Through a series of negotiations with Ephron, a Hittite, Abraham is able to buy the land and procure for generations this burial site. Ultimately, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were all buried there.
The Torah wouldn’t spend so much time on this story if it weren’t important. People ascribe a great deal of importance and meaning to the place where they bury their loved ones. We are not unusual in this area; everyone recognizes the sacred space that is a cemetery. These are places that deserve respect.
Respect everywhere, that is, except in North Dakota, where the North Dakota pipeline (DAPL) is being built through sacred Native American burial grounds. At Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, hundreds and hundreds of “water protectors” have been protesting the laying of the NDPL, saying that it runs right through their tribal burial grounds. A CNN report quoted Spotted Eagle, a 68 year old elder of the community as saying, “What if the Great Sioux Nation decided to build a project through Arlington Cemetery?” Spotted Eagle points out that Western eyes can’t even see where these burial grounds are. “Archaeologists come in who are taught from a colonial structure, and they have the audacity to interpret how our people were buried. How would they even know?”
What’s happening at Standing Rock is more than an embarrassment. People are being water-cannoned in freezing weather. Rubber bullets and tear gas are being used on an unarmed group of protesters. We’ve seen this happen in Selma and Birmingham, and now against Native Americans in North Dakota.
It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. Our simplistic school-days story tells us that during a difficult winter, with starvation and disease all around, the people who were already living here welcomed the ones who arrived on their shores, and shared a meal. At this point in our nation’s history, welcoming everyone to the table is more and more crucial to our future as a country. Yet, the irony is inescapable. At a time when we tell a story of the Native Americans who help the immigrants, the descendents of those immigrants display the ultimate disrespect – threatening to desecrate holy burial grounds.
This is a “shandah”, a shame, and more, a horrible injustice. Abraham knew how vital it was for a community to set aside a place for respecting its dead, in perpetuity, to own and maintain for all generations. He knew what it was to create sacred ground. How can we stay silent when that right is so violently denied to others?
Wishing you a table full of food, joy, loving faces and renewed commitment to be grateful for what we have, and to fight for justice in our land.