It has been 49 years since my first visit to the Tomb of Yosef in the Samarian city of Shechem, called Nablus by the Romans to evoke the Italian city of Naples and obscure its Jewishness. In the ensuing half-century, I have visited Shechem approximately a half-dozen times but not at all in more than 15 years, since the city and its holy site were declared off limits to Jews (in violation of an explicit Arab commitment in the defunct and disastrous Oslo Accords). Until last night.
Accompanied by Elliot Cahan, Director of North American Development for the Yeshivat Hesder in Elon Moreh, a stone’s throw from Shchem (literally), we visited Shechem towards midnight, under cover of darkness and with a heavy military presence. More than a dozen times a year, the IDF opens up the Tomb of Yosef to Jewish visitors – always late at night and always with tight security. It is quite an experience, made even more special by the cool breeze that wafted through the Samarian mountains.
In 1969, still a young child, our family took an Egged bus to Shechem, exited at the Central Bus Station and walked a few blocks to the holy site. It was at high noon and quite routine.
We drove from the center of Israel, turned north at the Tapuach Junction and first traveled through the Arab town of Hawara, a fascinating site in its own right. The town was alive, with a commercial district that was new and vibrant, with exceedingly bright store signs, eateries packed with customers (it was late night, remember) and even some Jews walking around. I was last in Hawara four years ago, when it was drab and non-descript. Now, it looked totally revamped, thanks to the influx of millions of dollars funneled to the region by the Obama administration, which even paid for two sparkling new mosques. (Odd, indeed, that the United States government cannot build a synagogue or church in the US for constitutional reasons but the American taxpayer can fund the building of two mosques in Hawara.)
Aside from that, the town looked so normal that it reinforced my basic notion that many Arabs are not political, and just want to be left alone, and in fact, privately would prefer to be governed by Israel instead of their own corrupt dictators. They enjoy their proximity to the freedom that Israel represents. Alas, they too are often swept up by the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fervor that too often animates their society. As if to prove the point, the entry into Shechem was a reminder of the stark reality of the Jew-hatred that remains endemic to Arab society.
The ride from Itamar, a large settlement adjacent to Shechem, was as uneventful as any ride can be in a bullet proof van filled with men toting guns. The army presence was pervasive and the operation well organized. Just two blocks from the grave, our van was hit by large stone, which glanced off the thick sides of the vehicle. It was close to midnight, and to myself, I complimented the stone throwers on their work ethic, staying up late to seize the opportunity to stone Jews. The Tomb of Yosef, our Sages taught, was purchased by our patriarch Yaakov, and is thus one of the three places in Israel whose Jewish ownership cannot be denied. Sadly, the Arabs did not get the memo and have refused to examine the deed.
The Tomb of Yosef was destroyed shortly before my previous visit, in the wake of a terrorist attack that left six soldiers dead including Madhat Yusuf, a Druze officer who was allowed to bleed to death by the terrorists who refused to allow medical assistance to arrive for almost six hours and by the IDF commander who refused to order a rescue operation. The tomb and surrounding structure were razed and burnt to the ground.
It has now been rebuilt, refurbished, enlarged and a worthy final resting place for the great son of Yaakov. Over the course of the night, perhaps 1000 Jews came to pray, recite tehilim, and enjoy the ambience of this historic site. Van after van and bus after bus pulled up, depositing its passengers – men, women and children, Hasidic and modern, Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, and all to secure our claim to this territory that resonates with Jewish history. And this despite the fact that outside the tomb there was sporadic gunfire in the distance and the release of tear gas canisters to keep the hostiles at bay.
And perhaps as well to fortify ourselves in these troubled times with the strength of Yosef the Righteous. Yosef is the paragon of self-control in Jewish tradition, the man who had every reason and rationalization to sin and yet remained faithful and chaste. In an era in which self-control is considered a vice and immorality shamelessly parades about in public, Yosef’s lesson is a powerful reminder of human potential and an antidote to human degradation.
It was also Yosef who was so hated by his brothers that they sold him into slavery, and yet was quick to forgive them when he saw the broader picture, the providential role he and they played. In an era in which discord and acrimony are prevalent, Yosef showed us that there can be a better way, that Jews can find unity in our common purposes and objectives in fulfilling G-d’s will as a nation and as individuals.
And Yosef was characteristic of the Jew who benefits the nations of the world, whose wisdom and kindness saved millions even if it was not always appreciated.
I’m not keen on praying at graves, something that attracts many Jews of a different bent. But visiting the graves of heroes and righteous people affords the opportunity to bask in their presence and especially reflect on their lives and what we can learn from them.
The tomb of Yosef in its current state is a reminder of the hatred of our enemies that still deny Jewish history, and especially the necessity to enter only in the middle of the night so as not to provoke the natives even more. But it is also a reminder of the glorious past and the struggles of the present, and contains within it the seeds of the blessings of the future – the blessings of holiness and faith, the blessings of strength of character and moral rectitude, and the blessings of Moshiach ben Yosef who is in the process of rebuilding the material life of Israel and laying the foundation for ultimate redemption.