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Celebrating the Ethiopian Jewish Community | Parashat Chukat

Celebrating the Ethiopian Jewish Community | Parashat Chukat

Nir Braudo

Memorial Ceremony for Ethiopian Jewish Immigrants Who Perished in the Journey to Israel, Jerusalem, 2008 (Credit: Benny Woodo)

This week, the distress of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Israel has again reached the headlines – and yet again because of a tragic death.

Much has already been written and will be written about the racism and discrimination that members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community face every day from fellow citizens and state authorities merely because of the color of their skin. And it’s a shame that we need to reach the loss of human life in order to address the racism that is deeply entrenched in us.

But especially on such sad days it is important to recognize the glorious heritage of the Ethiopian Jewish community – the incredible stories, history, leadership and wisdom of many generations that preserved ancient traditions, and which the community brought with them upon their aliyah to Israel.

One of the most interesting of such ancient traditions is mentioned at the opening of this week’s Torah portion: 

“This is the ritual law [chukat ha-torah] that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow [parah adumah] without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”  (Bemidbar 19:2)

This Torah portion is the source for a whole assortment of Jewish laws related to the red cow (a.k.a. the red heifer): it is a mature cow with a reddish brown color, which had never performed any labor. Only the ashes of such a cow can purify a person who has become ritually impure due to contact with the dead.

Beta Israel Ancient Holy Book Written in Ge’ez

Since this is such a rare creature, the phrase “Red Heifer” [Parah Adumah] has become a symbol and expression in Jewish and Israeli culture of something that is special and rare, and that a person might not merit to experience often – or at all – in one’s lifetime. In the first centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, no such heifers were found, and the custom disappeared from the world and became nothing but a theoretical concept… or so we thought. 

It turns out that our Beta Israel brethren, the Ethiopian Jewish community, kept this practice until the twentieth century, continuing to raise red cows and use the ashes to ritually purify a person following contact with the dead. It is astonishing to think that this ancient custom mentioned in our Parasha has been preserved by one particular Jewish community for almost 3,000 years since its first mention and about 2000 years since it ceased to be preserved in other communities.

Our Parasha is an opportunity to tell one small story from among many an ancient, vibrant and fascinating community of Jews, which like every community preserves certain things and renews others. And so from a celebration of diversity, renewal and preservation, we can celebrate a richer and more diverse Judaism.

Sigd Holiday celebration, Jerusalem, 2009

May we merit to know and learn from and about the Ethiopian Jewish community on the Sigd holiday, at the inspiring gatherings of Forum Yerusalem* (in which BINA is proud to take part), and other joyous occasions, and may we remember them and appreciate them not only in unfortunate circumstances.

Just as the best way to fight darkness is to increase light, the best way to fight racism is to increase familiarity with one another, to explore and celebrate our diversity, and to learn about and from the amazing and unique story and traditions of our Ethiopian Jewish brothers and sisters, at this time and others. 

Nir Braudo is Deputy Director of BINA and Director of the Network of BINA Secular Yeshivas.

* Forum Yerusalem is a coalition of nonprofit organizations that work together to breathe new life into the story of the Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel and to find a new, positive, authentic and significant place for it in the broader Israeli-Zionist narrative. Learn more at: https://www.forumyerusalem.org/english.

Featured Photo: Demonstration of Ethiopian Residents in Tel Aviv (Credit: Harvey Sapir Pikiwiki Israel)

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