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Dancing at Joseph's Tomb: The Night Rabbi Hillel's Smile Trumped Death

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The Festival of Sukkot, the Jewish week-long Thanksgiving, is loaded with symbols and symbolism. In the time of Solomon's Temple, 70 sacrifices were brought on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. Jews today, like those of Solomon's time, vacate their homes and move into a Sukkah (a hut) for a week. Each evening, one of forefathers is honored with special prayers of the Ushpizin (guest), song and dance.

Monday was Joseph's turn. You remember reading about the biblical dreamer, his sibling rivalries and, later, how he ultimately saved a famine-stricken Egypt and Middle East.

I stepped off the bus from Jerusalem at 2:30 a.m. on the outskirts of Nablus (Shechem), to join an eclectic and spirited group of hundreds of Jewish men and women from across Israel and around the world, who were reading from King David's Psalms, praying for the sick, and dancing at the just re-opened Joseph's Tomb.

Yes, Joseph's Tomb, just as advertised in the book of Joshua, (24:32): "The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob."

We weren't the first pilgrims to visit; so did the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who visited it nearly 1,700 years ago. Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and even 19th-century British cartographers all agree that this is where Joseph the Dreamer was buried.

But Monday night was different. Emotions ran high because this small sacred parcel of real estate had, since it was turned over to the Palestinian Authority, been destroyed twice by the locals, reduced to a smoldering ruin in October 2000 and, more recently, nearly destroyed again with attackers again desecrating the grave and daubing Nazi Swastikas on the walls. The Israeli government finally took action, restoring the grave and replacing the copula and headstones that had been destroyed by Palestinian rioters.

Truth be told, I initially found myself crying, not celebrating, for I recalled my last visit to Joseph's Tomb in 1998, when I was disarmed by a gentle scholar and a warm smile that never seemed to fade from his face. Rabbi Hillel Lieberman headed a small Od Yosef Chai ("Joseph Still Lives!") Yeshiva just adjacent to the tomb. We spoke only for five minutes that day, but I gratefully took a piece of that smile with me when we departed.

Less than two years later he was dead. During the High Holy Days 10 years ago, after control of the Jewish Holy Site had been turned over to the Palestinians, Joseph's Tomb was virtually destroyed by a rampaging mob. A distraught rabbi Lieberman, unarmed and wearing a prayer shawl, quietly walked to the site to try to retrieve Holy Torah Scrolls from the ruins. He never returned. The next day his bullet-ridden body was found in a nearby cave.

On Monday night, I just couldn't shake that image from my mind. Instead of dancing, I was weeping. It was then that I was introduced to the rabbi's widow. "There are so many times I felt like crying," she told me, "but I can't -- Hillel's smile and spirit have never left me. During this last year, four of our children got married -- it's a kind of miracle, but I know he has never forsaken me or this holy place. So please, go and dance -- Od Yosef Chai!"

Joseph's Tomb is yet another inconvenient but critical component that underscores the complexities of the past and future in the Holy Land. But it's important for friends of peace, especially religious leaders, to challenge President Abbas with this question: Why should the Palestinian Authority be entrusted with safeguarding churches and synagogues in any future state when they helped facilitate death and destruction in Nablus, a city they control?

Mr. Abbas -- do you actually have a plan to protect holy sites and personal religious freedom, or is Joseph's Tomb the template for more violence and needless martyrs in the future? Any hopes for true peace and reconciliation hang in the balance.

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Joseph's Tomb - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia