A Homiletical History of our Cemetery
by Avi Rockoff
Shemini 2000
Where were Nadav and Avihu buried?
It doesn’t say, does it? We know they died--vatetze esh milifnei Hashem vatochal otam vayamutu, a heavenly fire consumed them, and they died. Then Moshe asked Misha’el and Eltzafan to carry them out, vayisa’um bechutanotam, and they carried them out in their vestments . . .
What were they wearing -- asbestos?
If fire consumed them, how could there have been bodies, much less vestments, to carry out?
The Gemara, cited by Rashi, says, what happened was, serefat neshama veguf kayam, their souls were extinguished, leaving their bodies intact.
Hashem commanded Aharon not to mourn the death of his two sons. But if their burial was ignominious on account of their sin, the location of Nadav and Avihu’s burial was no different from that of the other metei midbar, those who perished during the 40 years B’nei Yisra’el wandered in the desert -- michutz lamachane, outside the camp, a camp which was itself perpetually moving. In other words, their place in death bore no relation to where they had lived.
This is indeed a sad end, one which is useful to contrast with that of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, whose burial place had a great deal to do with their lives. But what precisely was the relationship between where the Avot were buried, the Me’arat Hamachpelah in Hevron, and their lives? That might seem to have a simple answer: they were buried in Eretz Yisra’el, where they had lived.
But it is not so simple. Closer scrutiny is needed. Where exactly did the Avot actually live?
Avraham Avinu was born in Ur Casdim, in Lower Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq. He did not stay there long, though, as his father Terach left Ur with his family, headed for Eretz Kena’an. But he never got there. Instead, he reached Haran, which is 885 kilometers northwest, 16 km north of what is now the Syrian-Turkish border. [All geographic designations and distances are taken from either Nahum Sarna’s commentary on Bereshit, or the Sixt Reliable Rent-a-Car map of Israel. Mikol melamdai hiskalti.]
So Avraham grew up in Haran, generating the vital stock of childhood memories we all have about our birthplace -- trudging to school in the winter, playing stickball in the summer . . .
Question: which place did Avraham refer to as artzi, my land? Hint: not Eretz Yisra’el.
When Avraham sent his servant, whom we refer to Eli’ezer, to find a wife for Yitzchak, he admonished him not to choose a Canaanite girl, but rather ki im el artzi v’el molad’ti telech, you should go instead to my land, my birthplace. Haran was Avraham’s land, whereas Eretz Yisra’el was always a land of movement and sojourn. Throughout the lives of all three Avot, the words by which the Torah repeatedly describes their settlement are ger and lagur; they were strangers passing through. The Avot knew of course that some day the land would belong to their descendants, but that was for later generations, not for them.
Hashem sent Avraham away from his land, lech lecha me’artz’cha. Where did he go? First ad mekom Shechem, which is present-day Nablus, 60 km north of Yerushalayim along Highway 60. Then he moved south to Bet El, just above Ramallah, 35 km south. Then a famine induced him to move to Mitzrayim for a time, after which he returned to Elonei Mamre, the terebinths of Mamre, in Hevron.
Now it seems we are getting to the point where Avraham comes home, near the site of his eventual burial in the Me’arat Hamachpelah. And indeed he lived in Elonei Mamreh for some time. That is when he began to worry about his future, and Hashem took him outside and asked him to look at the sky, us’for hakochavim, and count the stars, because your children will be as numerous as they are. Then Avraham asked, bamah eda ki irashena, how do I know I will inherit it, as opposed to merely sojourning here? Then with the brit ben habetarim, Hashem promised the land to Avraham, saying, yado’a teda ki ger yih’ye zar’acha, your offspring will be strangers in a strange land, vedor revi’i yashivu hena, only a fourth generation will return here to inherit this place.
The promise of ownership was thus meant for a distant future. And some time later, Avraham left.
First he went to Gerar, in eretz plishtim. This has been identified with Tell Haror, 24 km northwest of Be’er Sheva, or some 75 km from Hevron. From there he moved to Be’er Sheva, where he stayed until the death of his wife Sarah, whom he had left behind in Hevron.
How long was he in Be’er Sheva? Vayagar Avraham be’eretz plishtim yamim rabim, and Avraham sojourned there -- that word again -- for many days. Rashi, based on the chronology in Seder Olam, says he lived in Elonei Mamreh for 25 years, and in Be’er Sheva for 26 years. Precise numbers aside, the thrust of the pasuk is to tell us that he spent more time among the plishtim than in Hevron.
Avraham returned to Hevron when Sara died. The pasuk says vayavo Avraham lispod leSara, and Avraham came to mourn Sara. Rashi says on vayavo: mibe’er sheva, where he was living while his wife was back in Hevron. Did Avraham consider himself at home there? No. Approaching Efron hachiti to purchase a plot of land, he says, ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a stranger and resident alien among you. He then bought the land for top shekel, lest any haggling put his title to the land, already tenuous because of his alien status, in any doubt later on. After burying Sara, Avraham returned to Be’er Sheva, where he stayed.
Yitzchak too lived in Be’er Sheva and its environs. Coming to meet him as a young bride, Rivka found him at be’er lachai ro’i v’hu yoshev b’eretz hanegev, he was dwelling in the south. Yitzchak then moved to Gerar, 24 km northwest of Be’er Sheva, then to Nachal Gerar, presumably somewhere nearby, and then back to Be’er Sheva, where he stayed, apparently till the end of his life.
Ya’akov then grew up in Be’er Sheva. After he obtained Yitzchak’s bracha and incurred the enmity of his brother Esav, Ya’akov had to flee. Before he left, Yitzchak admonished him not to marry one of b’not kena’an but to go instead to Haran. And he blessed him yet again as follows: veyiten lecha et birkat Avraham . . . lerishtecha et eretz megurecha, that Ya’akov should at last inherit -- lareshet -- the land where he and his fathers had merely sojourned so far.
Ya’akov headed north, reversing the path of Avraham. He slept on a rock at Beit El, where he had the famous dream of the ladder, in which Hashem stood on top and said, ha’aretz asher ata shochev aleha lecha et’nena u’lezar’echa, the land you are lying on I shall give to you and your offspring.
Ya’akov continued on to Haran where he married Leah and Rachel and worked six years more to establish his wealth. Then he left with his family to return to Eretz Kena’an, with his father-in-law Lavan in hot pursuit. After concluding a treaty with Lavan in Gil’ad, across the Jordan, Ya’akov crossed that river and set up camp at Sukkot, which is identified with Deir Allah in the Jordan Valley, some 120 km north of Jerusalem. He then proceeded south to Shechem, where he settled. He would have stayed there too, since he bought a plot of land -- vayiken at chelkat hasadeh -- perhaps to establish his own burial ground.
That was not to be, however, because Shim’on and Levi massacred the whole town of Shechem to avenge their sister Dinah’s honor, and Ya’akov had to leave. He traveled south to Beit El, and was almost at Bet Lechem when Rachel died in childbirth. He buried her on the road, with only a short distance, a kivrat ha’aretz, to reach Efrat, which is Beit Lechem.
And then he went further, actually to Hevron. But what is of interest is that the Torah never mentions explicitly that Hevron is where he was. All it says is vayeshev Ya’akov be’eretz megurei aviv, and Ya’akov dwelled in the land of his father’s sojourns. We can only divine his whereabouts by inference. His brothers trussed him and up and threw him into the pit when his father sent him to them as they were pasturing their flocks in Shechem. As the pasuk says, vayishlachehu me’emek Hevron vayavo Shechema. Ya’akov must therefore have been living somewhere near Hevron. In that case, why were the brothers pasturing the flocks in Shechem, 100 kilometers away? Most likely, because the land there was more suitable, which in turn is why Ya’akov would probably have preferred to live there had political considerations not dictated otherwise. The Avot, after all, moved around so much not to sample the scenery but for the same reasons people have always moved -- for greater economic opportunity.
It is also of interest that despite Esav’s assumption so many years before that yikrevu yemei evel avi, my father will soon pass away, the infirm Yitzchak was still alive when Yoseph was taken down to Egypt. He continued to live for 12 years more in Be’er Sheva while Ya’akov was in the neighborhood of Hevron.
In the end of course Ya’akov was reunited with Yoseph in Egypt, where he died. On his deathbed he called Yoseph to beg, al na tikbereni bemitzrayim, please don’t bury me in Egypt, but rather in the tomb of my fathers. He then recounts the bracha which Hashem gave him at Beit El when he was on his way to Haran as a young man: hineni mafr’cha vehirbiticha . . . venatati et ha’aretz hazot lezar’acha acharecha achuzat olam, I will cause you to multiply, and I will give this land as an eternal inheritance to the children who come after you.
This is almost what he heard in the dream of the ladder, but not quite: it is missing one word, lecha, to you. When he was starting out, Ya’akov thought he would inherit the land himself. By the time he was ready to die, he realized of course that he would not, only his children would.
To the end then the Avot remained gerim, strangers, in Eretz Yisra’el. As for Hevron, none thought of it as their home. Avraham lived there for a while, but did not purchase the burial plot until long after he had left. Yitzchak never lived there at all. And Ya’akov returned to Hevron only under duress. The promise of yerusha, ownership, was not for the Avot themselves but for the generations which would come later.

At this point you might ask why this inquiry is of interest. Considering the location of burial plots seems rather abstract, not to mention depressing. I would say, however, that to the contrary this question is very practical indeed.
Samuel Johnson famously said that standing before a firing squad concentrates the mind wonderfully. Although this is no doubt true, firing squads stand outside the range of experience for most of us. At the risk of taming Sam’s insight, I would therefore like to domesticate it by the following paraphrase: getting a bill concentrates the mind wonderfully. Especially if it is a large bill, payable upon receipt.
On my desk sits such a bill, from the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM): For Cemetery Reservations, Independent Congregation Chevra Shas Cemetery, Baker Street, West Roxbury, Shaarei Tefillah Members Section.
Now many of you are new in town, and others are alarmingly young. Because you may not even know where Baker Street in West Roxbury is, I would like to orient you to this place both in space and in time.
To reach Baker Street you go down Morseland and turn left on Comm Ave. Make a right on Centre Street, go through Newton Centre, and follow the road as it curves to the right -- if you reach Holly Cleaners, you’ve gone too far. Curve left instead between the Learning Express and the Lutheran Church of the Newtons, then right onto Parker Street. Take that across Route 9 and go yashar yashar ad hasof until Dedham Street, where you make a left. After the Brookline Street traffic light that becomes Baker Street, and just a short distance more is the cemetery complex.
To help you better figure your position, I will proceed with you past this place so you’ll know what’s on the other side. Just beyond is another cemetery, Gethsemane Non-Denominational. This was German cemetery at one point but is now re-inventing itself and embarked upon a marketing campaign, as evidenced by its cheerful slogan, “Plan Now and Save.” Along the road to Gethsemane, there is the Historical Site of Brook Farm, the failed utopian farming experiment of the mid-1840’s. A short walk farther along Baker Street brings you to the VFW Parkway. A right turn there brings you to Home Depot. Beyond that on the left is the West Roxbury VA. Crossing over Route 109, the VFW becomes Route 1, which takes you down to Levitz Furniture, Toys R Us, the Showcase Cinema in Dedham, and, just across Route 128, to Automile.
But perhaps more important than orientation in space is orientation in time. The Baker Street Cemetery exists not just in West Roxbury but lies embedded in the history of the Boston Jewish community.
The view from the road in front of the gate is somewhat misleading; there is a sign, “Beth El Cemetery” just to the left of the main gate, but this refers just to one of the many individual cemeteries in the complex. The Beth El cemetery is privately run, not one of those administered by JCAM. I will touch on the significance of this fact in a moment.
Also misleading is the chapel to the right of the main gate, which reads, “Shara Tefilo.” That this does not refer to our own shul is evident from the fact that the name is inscribed in cement in a building which is clearly quite old. Another clue is the spelling, which derives from the Yiddish pronunciation and not from the punctilious, Sephardic-inspired orthography distinctive of our own institution. In fact, “Shara Tefilo” is the Otisfield Street shul in Roxbury, founded in 1906. (It was a breakaway shul!)
Entering the cemetery, one passes Beth El and the Crawford Street shul, Beth Hamidrash Hagadol. Moving on, one passes a garage, then Pulpit Rock, where Pastor John Eliot preached to the Indians from 1646-1675. Then comes Temple Emeth, Staro Konstantinov, the Pultusker, whose shamos depository is always open, the Workmen’s Circle, the Zhviller, and the Custom Tailors.
The Cemetery of Congregation Independent Chevra Shas is almost at the far end, in Section 43. From its rear you can see over the fence into Gethsemane Non-Denominational. There is a newly-seeded plot at the front of this section, right near the road. This was a chapel recently torn down and designated for our own shul. There may be a sign marking it as the Shaarei Tefillah section, though this decision has not yet been made by the JCAM Board.
Chevra Shas was chosen for our congregation, because it is an Orthodox cemetery, the other being Beth El, which as noted is not run by JCAM. Congregation Chevra Shas was originally on Ashton Street, just off Blue Hill Ave. in Mattapan. When it closed its doors in 1973, some members continued the southward march which had taken Boston’s Jews from the South End to Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and then Milton. Their Rabbi made a sharp right turn, however, and the congregation found its last institutional home in Newton, where its address was 35 Morseland Avenue.
The choice of Chevra Shas for our shul to join in eternal repose is not without irony. When our shul was purchasing the house on this site, negotiations with Chevra Shas were, shall we say, delicate. Sincere offers for Chevra Shas members to continue davening with us in their building elicited no response. The remaining Chevra Shas members all left, with the sole exception of Bob Sherer.
But for the two congregations to pass eternity together is perhaps fitting, in keeping with the insight of Kohelet, gam ahavatam gam sin’atam gam kin’atam k’var avadah, their loves, their hates, their jealousies are all in the end forgotten.
Walking through the Baker Street complex, past the Otisfield Street shul, the Crawford Street shul, Kopiagorod, the Vilner, Shepetkova and the Boylston Lodge . . . unleashes a flood of memories, which crowd in on each other as memories do, unbidden and in no special order.
Remember when the Beth Israel Hospital moved from Townsend Street in Dorchester to its brand-new facility on Brookline Avenue? Remember when our own Lenny Bernstein, from the Mishkan Tefilla Talmud Torah, conducted at Tanglewood with Koussevitsky? Remember the L Street Brownies, sunning themselves on the sand in zero-degree weather? Remember Blue Hill Ave, teeming with multitudes of Jews, especially before shabbos and yom tov? Remember the Blue Hill Credit Union, the Morton Theater, Waldman’s Candies where kids went in for a treat? Remember Prime Kosher, the very first kosher supermarket in the United States, 1102 Blue Hill Ave? And who can forget the G&G Delicatessen, where Julie Ansell, our Councillor, held court as politicians from every level came to campaign, from James Michael Curley to JFK?
You don’t remember?
Well, neither do I. Boston has an interesting and varied history, but it doesn’t happen to be my history. Does it happen to be yours?
According to some, the imperative for a Jewish community to have its own cemetery derives from, or at least is hinted at, by the words of Barzilai Hagil’adi. After Barzilai helped David Hamelech overcome Avshalom, David invited him to join the court in Yerushalayim. Barzilai demurred, saying he was too old to travel, his senses too dulled. Im yit’am avd’cha et asher ochal v’et asher estheh, can I even taste what I eat and drink, he asked. Yashav na avd’cha v’amut be’iri, let your servant go back and die in my town.
Gil’ad was Barzilai’s town. What’s your town?
Is Newton your town? No? Why not? What about Brookline, Cambridge, Boston? Are they your town? No? New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit? London? Moscow? Are they your town? Why?
How long do you have to live in a town before it becomes your town? Two years? Five? Ten? Twenty-five years? Twenty-six? And which years do they have to be? Must they be at the beginning, must you be born in town for it to be your town? Should they be at the end, or in the productive middle years?
Or do you have live there at all? Can you adopt a town you’ve never actually lived in? Can you take on someone else’s usable past? Can you insinuate yourself into someone else’s narrative, like a digital guest in a faded photographic image, making use of the quirk of our mental makeup which allows us to experience places we’ve never been and things we’ve never seen as though we had? Surely you know what I’m referring to -- were we not all together at ma’amad Har Sinai? Are we not here together this morning because of the covenant, the brit which was made et asher yeshno po imanu hayom omed lifnei Hashem Elokenu, with those who stand here today with us before G-d, v’im asher enenu po imanu hayom, and those who are not with us here today?
These questions are neither frivolous nor rhetorical nor abstract. They are, to the contrary, quite practical. You see, the things I asked you to remember which most of you could not possibly remember were not chosen at random. They were taken from wall hangings and decorations in local homes for the aged and convalescent facilities. Those committed to this community must therefore face at the least the possibility of spending their declining years amid riveting and poignant evocations of somebody else’s childhood, and of concluding them off of Baker Street in West Roxbury, past the sign for the Beth El Cemetery, among the members of Congregation Independent Chevra Shas, adjacent to Gethsemane Non-Denominational, hard by the ruins of the peculiarly-proportioned barn where our Transcendental forerunners played at farming in the middle of the century before last, just a short walk -- a mere kivrat ha’aretz, really -- from the broad and tree-lined parkway named in honor of the veterans of foreign wars.

In parashat Vayechi there is a perplexing pasuk. After asking Yoseph to bury him in Eretz Yisra’el, Ya’akov promises to include Yoseph’s eldest two sons Ephraim and Menashe in the inheritance of that land alongside Ya’akov’s own children. Then he recalls, va’ani bevo’i mipadan, and when I returned from Haran, meta alai Rachel be’eretz kena’an baderech, Rachel died along the way, be’od kivrat eretz lavo Efrata, with just a short distance to reach Efrat, va’ekbereha sham bederech Efrat hi Bet Lechem, and I buried here there on the road to Efrat, which is Bet Lechem. The question is: what has this reminiscence got to do with what Ya’akov is talking about?
Rashi answers that it is an apology to Yoseph. Ve’af al pi she’ani matriach alecha leholicheni l’hikaver b’eretz kena’an, even though I am putting you to the trouble of carrying me back to Kena’an, v’lo kach asiti l’imcha, I did not do that for your mother. This answer is not quite satisfactory, since an apology would have been more in place a few pesukim earlier, right after Ya’akov’s request not to be buried in Egypt.
But there is another troubling point -- what exactly was Ya’akov apologizing for? For not burying Rachel in Efrat? What was in Efrat? The Me’arat Hamachpelah was in Hevron, 28 kilometers farther on, and there is no suggestion that Ya’akov ever considered burying Rachel there alongside Leah. What then is the significance of Rachel’s being buried just a short distance from Efrat, a place of no particular significance?
Rashi says, v’lo holachtiha afilu leBet Lechem lehachnisa la’aretz, I didn’t even carry her to Beit Lechem, to bring her into the land. This agitates Ramban, who points out that Bet Lechem most certainly is in Eretz Yisra’el. The commentators on Rashi come to his defense, saying that Rashi surely knew this -- the pasuk itself says Rachel died be’eretz kena’an baderech. What Rashi meant was just that Ya’akov buried Rachel died along the way, and did not trouble to bring her to the nearest eretz meyushevet, place of settlement.
Perhaps then we ought to look at Rachel’s sad fate not in terms of her destination but of her journey; not that she didn’t get to Efrat, but rather that she didn’t get anywhere at all.
That is in fact how we remember Rachel in Yirmiyahu’s famous image. Kol beramah nishma, a voice is heard on high, avel bechi tamrurim, a bitter cry of mourning, as Rachel weeps inconsolably for her children who are gone. They are at risk for a fate like hers, never to come home but only to grind to a halt wherever they happen to be, like Nadav and Avihu, whom last we left fully-attired yet quite inert, all dressed up and nowhere. Their interment differed from that of the other metei midbar in the ignominy of its execution but not in its location: michutz lamachane, outside the camp, a camp which itself traversed aimless circles in a trackless waste, a final resting place which bore no relationship to any aspect of their lives.
This sad end contrasts with the fate of the Avot, whose burial did indeed bear a close organic relationship with their lives. But what, precisely, was the nature of that relationship?
The Avot were not buried with their past, that treacherous realm, so easy to adopt, so easy to discard, so simple to modify, select, distort, to suit the fleeting needs of the moment. They were not buried with their present, so solid, so concrete, so real, so trivial, so apt to dissolve into instant irrelevance. Rather, the Avot were buried in a realm more substantial despite the fact that -- or perhaps better, because of the fact that -- they never experienced it. The Avot were buried with their future. Of course, they had a great advantage when it came to the future, because Hashem told them what it was. He showed Avraham the stars, and more to the point told him what they meant. For the rest of us, for whom revelation is more remote, the future indeed resembles the stars, but without the commentary: sometimes bright, sometimes flickering, sometimes, dark, always opaque.

In one of his best-known poems, Yehuda Halevi presents a startling inversion of the words of Barzilai Hagil’adi. Whereas Barzilai’s senses were too dulled for him to leave home, the poet’s senses were too dulled for him to stay there. In six short lines he describes the sense of existential displacement, of the distance between situation and aspiration, the pervasive feeling of being, in time and place, elsewhere.
Libi b’mizrach v’anochi b’sof ma’arav
My heart is in the east, while I am at the edge of the west
Ech et’ama et asher ochal v’ech ye’erav
How can I taste what I eat, and how can I enjoy it
Echah ashalem nedarai v’esarai
How can I fulfill my vows and obligations
B’od tziyon bechevel edom v’ani b’kevel arav
When Tziyon is the domain of Christendom and I am in the bonds of Arabia
Yekal be’enai azov kol tuv Sefarad
It would be as easy for me to abandon all the goodness of Spain
K’mo yekar be’enai re’ot afrot devir necherav
As it would be dear to me to see the dust of the ruined shrine.