Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites – four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate… And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.
-Genesis 23:16, 19-20
Driving through the main eastern entrance to Acco last week, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the viaduct under the train tracks has been completed, eliminating a grade level crossing that had been an increasingly annoying (and dangerous) feature of the landscape as the frequency of train service improved in recent years. For decades, rail service in Israel was quite limited, and almost all intersections between tracks and roads were simple grade level crossings with gates. Horrendous train-car – and train-bus – collisions were not uncommon, given the impatience and sense of invulnerability that are well-known elements of Israeli culture. As the train service improved and expanded, and the public became more concerned with safety issues, grade level crossings became a focus of attention. Guards were posted at many, to augment the automatic gates, and plans were drawn up to convert them to bridges and viaducts.
The main entrance to Acco intersected the main north-south rail line, and was high on the priority list of crossings to be fixed. Work began in 2003 on a major project to dig a viaduct under the tracks. Any excavation in Israel requires that the Antiquities Authority be notified, to survey the area, and if necessary to perform a “rescue dig,” to document any archaeological remains that will be destroyed by the project. These digs are monitored by Atra Kadisha, an Ultra-orthodox organization whose purpose is to prevent the desecration of [Jewish] graves. And indeed, old human remains were found in the viaduct area. After a while, we noticed, when we drove into Acco, that progress on the viaduct had stopped, and it appeared that the construction site was abandoned. And then we learned that negotiations were under way to find a solution to the problem. This phase took a few years, and then the implementation of the compromise extended the work even more. The solution was both to raise the tracks and to reduce the depth of the passage under them, so the maximum vehicle height is only around 7 feet – suitable for passenger cars only. Trucks and buses have to use alternate routes.
Honoring the dignity of the dead is an important Jewish value, and is manifest in various funeral and cemetery customs. One principle that derives from it is the prohibition of disturbing or moving a grave, or in showing dishonor to a body, a grave, or a cemetery. At the same time, it is impossible to avoid conflicts between this value and others, such public welfare, and there is an extensive halachic literature addressing such conflicts over the centuries, with a range of rabbinical opinions. Meanwhile, three thousand years of habitation have allowed for the creation of lots of graves, many of them forgotten and covered over by conquering peoples or natural forces. Trying to develop the country while avoiding these buried burial sites seems to be an impossible challenge. Confrontations involving Atra Kadisha, archaeologists, planners, and developers are part of our regular news feed – including occasional violent demonstrations, as the defenders of the faith seek to prevent the desecration of our putative ancestors’ resting places.
It’s an interesting dilemma – not only a conflict between the traditional notion of respect for the dead and the modern concept that “the earth is for the living;” it also touches on the question of our historical connection to the land, and our ancestors’ graves as proof of our roots here. When Herzl titled his futuristic novel about the Jewish state “Old-New Land” he had no idea what struggles that expression would entail.