Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, opens with Abraham finding a suitable piece of land for burying Sarah. Abraham will eventually be buried in the same location. This poignant vignette exemplifies the mitzvah of kavod ha-met, honoring of the deceased, Abraham burying Sarah in a space that was designated for her and her family members demonstrated his love and respect for her. Like Abraham, we too bury our loved ones with dignity, in respectful and well-maintained spaces.
Vandalism of a cemetery upsets that sense of dignity. Any kind of vandalism in a religious space – Jewish or another faith— is scary and painful. Those feelings, along with grief and anger, are even stronger when it occurs at a cemetery, a place where we entrust the bodies of those we love when their souls are no longer part of this earth.
Earlier this month, a Jewish cemetery, Temple Israel, in northeastern Omaha was vandalized. The vandals knocked over 75 headstones, causing more than $50,000 in damage to the cemetery and an immeasurable amount of anguish and pain to the community.
Derogatory language and pictures on a house of worship can be painted over, cleaned up, and a community can come together to show its strength in the face of hate. Toppled headstones are harder to fix, both physically and emotionally. Such attacks demonstrate not just a measure of disrespect to the current community, but an attempt to erase our very heritage, to defile the memory of those who came before us. It is an act of violence against those who cannot defend themselves. When Jews and their allies come together to restore and rebuild, and to challenge the hate and coldness that fuel this type of vandalism, they are not only defending our community but also fulfilling the obligation first undertaken by Abraham to honor his adored wife Sarah.