Sharon Shalom
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From Hamas to redemption, through the eyes of Ethiopian Jewry

Throughout history, a consciousness of redemption has helped Jews stave off despair, and move forward into the light (Noah)
Illustrative: Ethiopian Jews aboard an Israeli plane during Operation Moses (November 21, 1984 – January 5, 1985). (Screen grab from The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive)
Illustrative: Ethiopian Jews aboard an Israeli plane during Operation Moses (November 21, 1984 – January 5, 1985). (Screen grab from The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive)

The prelude to the Torah portion of Noah, that Jews around the world read this Shabbat, explicitly mentions Hamas.

And the earth was desolate before God, and the earth was full of “hamas”: And God saw the earth, and behold it was desolate, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth: And the Lord said to Noah, The end of all flesh is coming before me, for the earth is full of “hamas” from their presence, and I am destroying the earth” ( Genesis 6:11-13).

The Hebrew word, “hamas,” in this context, is frequently translated as violence. This represents one model of human behavior.

In the Book of Isaiah, we are presented with another model:

And the wolf shall dwell with a lamb, and a tiger shall lie down with a goat… They shall neither harm nor destroy all my holy mountain, for the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:69).

The hamas event in Genesis speaks of corruption, a catastrophic situation. It describes men who are righteous in their own eyes and this leads them to commit acts of robbery, murder and violence. On the other hand, the event described in the Book of Isaiah, is an event of redemption, one that reveals the mind of God. There will be no destruction and no corruption. The first event deals with the past while the second event deals with the future. Almost the same words and phrases are repeated in both. From these two sources, what can we learn about the pathology of evil and corruption? How can we cure them?

For millennia, Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) preserved biblical Jewish practice.  This was the way the Children of Israel worshiped God at the time they were exiled. In contrast, the rabbinic Jewish tradition, which came about following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, is founded on a paradigmatic revolution involving a theological and halachic trip beyond biblical Judaism. In this context, I will try to sketch the outline of the religious culture of Ethiopian Jewry.

First, the element of wonder is one of the most important in Beta Israel religious culture. Wonder is something that is natural, constant and very strong. It is mostly non-verbal. It is the product of a consciousness of submission, of reacting in modesty to something that is beyond knowing.

Biblical Judaism educates us to empower personal responsibility alongside a daily experience of wonder that offers hope for a better future. All these together create the consciousness of redemption based on a conception of shared fate and a focus on the future when, as Isaiah wrote, the will be “full of knowledge of the Lord.” This consciousness of redemption is able to defeat despair. Precisely in the inhuman situations that the people of Israel have faced, we managed to discover supernatural powers.

In contrast, the violent consciousness of the biblical “hamas” focuses on the past, sinking oneself into the mud of yesterday that shapes an outlook of “I was robbed.” This approach leads directly to a reality of “and the land will be filled with hamas/violence.” This is the difference between a consciousness of redemption and a consciousness of destruction.

Jewish people, of all stripes, maintain a consciousness of redemption. Many of us Ethiopian Jews embarked on an arduous journey toward redemption, marching fiercely to the Land of Israel. Our love conquered our fear. Thousands died horrible deaths along the way. However, due to our consciousness of redemption, Ethiopian Jews did not despair.

One of these members of Beta Israel is Kohin Keis (Priest and Religious leader) Barhan Yehais, shalita. When he and his family made the difficult trek to Jerusalem, three of his children and his wife, who was in an advanced stage off pregnancy, perished. What do we do in this situation? Biblical Judaism teaches us to pick up the fragments and ascend to the land of Israel, Jerusalem, nevertheless. This is an eternal journey. Keis Barhan, a tremendous scholar, and one of the generational advocates of Ethiopian Jewry, lives today in Kiryat Gat. He is full of hope and personal responsibility.

The second story is that of R. (name withheld). She was born after World War II, in a port city in northern Germany in a displaced persons camp where her parents who survived the Holocaust were residing. Her father and mother lost their entire families in the war. They met in a different displaced persons camp in Poland. Two young people who lost the most precious things in the world to them. They decided to get married and bring new life into the world. With the help of a Zionist organization they crossed Europe and boarded the famous ship, “Exodus.” They arrived in Haifa, but after disembarking they were put on a British ship and sent back to Germany where R. was born. Returned to German soil after the Holocaust! After several months in the displaced persons camp, her parents set out again to Israel and successfully immigrated in 1948, straight to an immigrant camp in Pardes Hana.

The consciousness of redemption that they had did not bring them to despair; it helped them to see tomorrow. R. told me, “My parents built life. They came out of hell, strong, determined and imbued with a faith that after the horrors of the Nazi Satan and his helpers, it is possible to be resurrected, from Shoah and loss to resurrection. I grew up in an optimistic, loving and warm home…if they were able to survive hell, if their spirit was not broken despite their bereavement, loss, hunger and illness, I will draw strength from them, from two people who did not lose hope.”

Precisely in a dark reality full of horrors, in the chaos and darkness on the face of an abyss, as described in the story of creation, suddenly you see the Spirit of God floating on the surface of the water. You see the spirit of the righteous man, the angels who continue to spread the light from Genesis to restore hope. Right now, we are in a war between the worldview of “and the earth will be filled with Hamas” of Genesis and “the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord,” of Isaiah.

I have every hope that a flood of water will come upon Hamas, which is mired in the mud of yesterday, and all evil, wickedness, and cruelty will descend into the waters of the abyss and thus be erased. In its place, I pray that a world of mercy will prevail. Destruction and despair will exit the world and a world of construction and hope will prevail.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom is the founding director of Ono Academic College's International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. He is also the author of Dialogues of Love and Fear (Koren, 2021) and From Sinai to Ethiopia (Gefen, 2016).
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