Rabbi Dr. Rabbi Shalom Sharon, Director of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry, at Ono Academic College, comments on the first Torah portion of the Book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”/Numbers) which is read in synagogues across the world this week. He noted that the portion opens with a description of the census Moses took of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert. It then moves on to describe the “parking arrangements” for the 12 tribes of Israel as they journeyed and rested in the desert. The Torah notes each tribe bore a banner, that the 12 tribes were divided into units of 3 tribes who camped around the mobile Tabernacle in each of the four compass directons. Are these just dry technical details about parking and walking arrangements in the desert or is there some more substantial message here? What is the Torah trying to teach us? As usual, we will take a short trip to the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews and return to answer our question.
Two and a half years ago, Dr. Rachel Hillel Avraham, head of the Department of Education and Social Studies at the Ono Academic College, asked me to teach the “Challenge of Diversity in Educational Institutions” course. Ono was established to serve as a free educational institution accessible to all groups and sectors. For this reason, it’s not surprising to find many students from the Arab-Israeli sector on campus. At the beginning of the semester I thought to myself that a meeting between a lecturer of Ethiopian descent and Israeli Arab students was not unusual, but it turned out to my surprise that the meeting between us created an extraordinary opportunity to raise important issues relating to identity.
When I arrived in Israel, there were very few Ethiopians here. I felt different, foreign and strange. I had a feeling people were looking at me and thinking I was a character that came out of the widely recited children’s rhyme, “A little black boy went to kindergarten.” Despite this, my desire to belong, to feel Israeli, was still very strong. Today I can already say that I feel Israeli alongside my Ethiopian identity.
So, that semester, I told my students about one of the most embarrassing moments I had during my time as a postdoctoral student in Boston. I told them that while I was there, I tried to get a Social Security card (similar to the Israeli identity card “Teudat Zehut”). For this purpose, I was asked to fill in my personal details. While filling out the forms, I was amazed to find that I had to write in one of the fields whether I was black, white, colored or otherwise. It is shameful of the United States to be so preoccupied with objectifying the subject, with focusing on “identification” rather than “identity.” I told my students that in Israel, the situation is much better. One of my students contradicted me and cried out in his pain – “We are Arabs, you, as a Jew will never understand us.” Then I fell silent. I felt this was the first time in my life that I was fully recognized for my Judaism. And by whom? By an Arab-Israeli.
This interaction led us to engage in much recognition of, distinguishing, identifying and getting to know the various groups that make up Israeli society today. For example, one of the common mistakes among the secular public regarding the ultra-Orthodox public community concerns the degree of their connection to the State of Israel. Many think that the ultra-Orthodox Jews suffer in the State of Israel, despise it and its institutions, refuse to celebrate Independence Day and in fact maintain contact with the establishment only in order to receive various benefits. Indeed, there are marginal factions that openly declare that they have no connection or loyalty to the state. However, anyone who knows the ultra-Orthodox public well knows that this is absolutely false. And so it is for every group. Moreover, the need for recognition also exists between Arabs and other Arabs, between blacks and other blacks, between ultra-Orthodox and other ultra-Orthodox. The Second Temple was destroyed according to Jewish tradition due to baseless hatred between the Jews. There were no Arabs or secular Jews at the time. All the Jews at the time of the Second Temple were religious and kept all the commandments and still they hated each other. Similarly, the crime and violence that plagues Israeli-Arab society which suffers almost ten murders a month is almost entirely between Arabs and other Arabs.
We can now return to answer our opening question about the weekly portion. The Torah is not giving us dry technical details about parking and walking arrangements in the desert. Instead, what it is really doing is laying out a template for the gamut of different identities and groups that have and will make up Israeli-Jewish society throughout the ages. It is making room for varieties of identity that today express themselves as ultra-Orthodox, secular, right-wing, left wing, Jewish, Arab and more. The creation of space for these identities is not an accident of history, created in the wake of the long years of Jewish exile. This space predated the exile. That differences exist between human beings is an a priori reality. And this is probably what the Midrash Raba (14th century collection of homiletic interpretation on the Torah) hints to us in its commentary on this week’s portion (Numbers 2:3). It notes, “God has great affection for the Jewish people expressed by making banners similar to those He gave his heavenly angels, so that they could be distinguished one from another.” The Midrash is saying that God made parking arrangements demarcated with banners that differentiate between the Tribes of Israel, because of His great affection for them. Love is not the elimination of differences between different groups but rather the recognition of differences in a system that offers full equality to all.
This is the lesson I learned from my late grandfather Abba Dajan (Gideon) Mangesha. At the basis Beta Israel’s theological paradigm is the singular fundamental value of equality. This is in distinct contrast to the social order, which is hierarchical and based on concepts of relative honor. Before God, however, all are equal, no matter who they are. Even the Gentile, who according to the Ethiopian Jewish tradition makes those whom he touches impure, is viewed as equal in the eyes of God. There is no one who is more or less important. Perhaps these values, which I received growing up in a traditional Ethiopian home, is what allows me to find a balance between my personal identity and my collective identity.
The full article can be read at https://shabaton1.co.il/?p=19667