Sharon Shalom

Redemption not destruction: What the elders in my village taught me

This is not the destruction of the Third Temple. It's the construction of another floor inside the Third Temple.
(Image courtesy of author)

Although it happened decades ago, I still clearly remember the moment when two Jews from the Land of Israel arrived in our village in Ethiopia. They looked like beings from another world. Their faces seemed to be like those of God’s ministering angels. We all wanted to grab their clothes because we knew that they were Jews from Jerusalem. We did not check whether they were Sephardic or Ashkenazi, left-wing or right-wing.

It is true, that later, when we, the Ethiopian immigrants, arrived in Israel, the rabbinical hegemony of the State cast doubts about our Judaism. They asked us to convert according to the most severe halachic standards and even required that men undergo a second, symbolic circumcision that drew blood from the relevant organ. If that was not enough, after years in which we donated blood as loyal citizens concerned about our fellow countrymen, we learned that the blood bank was ordered not to save our blood or use it to save lives.

We Ethiopian immigrants, wanted a loving partnership with our fellow Jews in the State of Israel so much that we were ready to do almost anything to belong. We did not want a “divorce” from the State of Israel and its citizens. We believed we are all brothers, so we were nice to our “partners” who treated us like some kind of monster.

Today we have already sobered up from our delusion. We are no longer ready to be anyone’s suckers. Many of us still carry scars that have not healed. Those for whom no balm will ever be found, suffer immense pain from the experience. Still we know how to show respect. We have shame. We do not shout. We have no desire for revenge. We’re not afraid of anyone. We are loving and respectful people.

In the context of the major upheaval that has been visited upon the nation following the passage by the Knesset of the “Reasonableness” law, the way that the Ethiopian community has chosen to respond to the indignities forced upon it can be seen as a type of cure for Israelis on all sides of this divide. The Ethiopian-Israeli response can be useful in the restoration of relations and mutual when one side lives with a deep sense of fear and the other side lives with a desire for revenge.

To be clear, no one on either side is going to agree to be a sucker. Both sides are partially right in their claims. For the pro-reform group, leaving the Supreme Court unreformed is like putting an idol in the Temple’s holy holies. The anti-reformers feel the same way about the possibility of allowing politicians to have supremacy over the Supreme Court. If the checks and balances are compromised, the government may enact anti-democratic laws. But there is also a need for some kind of reform because we need proper governance and representation.

The leadership in power acts like it’s in the opposition. It acts against the interests of its own citizens. Politicians call others them horrible names. For what it’s worth, during the period a few years ago when Ethiopian Jews were demonstrating for our rights, we were not called “hooligans and anarchists” like the protesters are called today. This behavior leads citizens to call the leadership a “terrorist government”. The passage of the “Reasonableness” law will severely damage the social compact between Israelis. In the short term, the supporters of the reform will pay the highest price. In the long term, there will be serious damage to the resilience of Israeli society.

This story is not about the destruction of the third temple, but instead about the construction of another floor inside the third temple.

From what I can see, I don’t think the third temple, the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel from 1948 until today, will be destroyed. How would I know this? From personal experience. In the Ethiopian Jewish village in which I was raised, I learned that it is better to embrace a mindset of redemption than a mindset of destruction. The mindset of redemption will not lead to the destruction of the Third Temple but instead is busy repairing the world by taking personal responsibility. The redemption mindset holds that no person is superior to another. Everyone is equal, and this equality does not exempt anyone from responsibility, but instead imposes responsibility on everyone over his/her life and environment. The redemption a mindset understands that it is not shameful to feel ashamed, that giving up is not weakness but strength.

The mindset of redemption was passed on to me by my elders in my village in Ethiopia. It helped me believe in the Israeli relationship even during the difficult moments of disappointment. This mindset taught me to see and find in Israeli society not the rudeness, not the short fuse, not the shouting and brutality but to see and find the hearts of the best people in the world. It taught me to understand that even if there are rude, short-fused, brutal people, they are the minority of the minority. Adopting this mindset allows us to lower the level of our fears on the one hand and to stop our desire to take revenge on the other.

We must not let worry, disappointment and pain blind us from seeing the good that is in this country. We are not witnessing the destruction of the Third Temple. We’re watching the construction of an additional floor inside the third temple that will allow us to refurnish it. It is precisely out of this crisis, that new opportunities open up to us. The crisis created an opportunity for more in-depth investigation regarding the existing relationships between the various identities in Israeli society. We are forced to confront critical issues like: Secular and religious relations, separation of religion and state, equality of the tax burden, the place and sanctity of the IDF in society, the establishment of religious ghettos, continued funding of institutions that discriminate based on origin or skin color.

A big wound has opened here for all of us. I ask that we try exposing it to sunshine. Every time a wound was opened, in my journey in Israeli society, I tried to expose it to sunshine. This light helped me look at the world through the eyes of others and try to understand them. In many cases, it was only when I succeeded in understanding others that I was also able to understand myself.

Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom is the Founder and Director of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College and the Rabbi of Congregation Kdoshei Israel in Kiryat Gat.

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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