Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 141

January 7, 2023 (13 Tevet 5783)

The Fulfillment of the Blessings

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this letter finds you well and in good cheer, having enjoyed a festive New Year’s celebration. Please join us this Saturday morning at 10:30am in our beautiful sanctuary for our in-person Shabbat services, which will also be available on the regular Zoom prayer-link.

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi, we conclude the book of Genesis with the famous deathbed scene, during which Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our forefather, “blesses” his twelve sons. The term “blesses” is deliberately in quotation marks as some of the patriarchal benedictions are obscure, some are not so laudatory, and some are poetically murky to the extent that some would argue, they are incomprehensible. It is clear through various commentaries, however, that Yaakov’s prophetic words reflect the inevitable scattering of his descendants, the multiple pathways of contributions that will come, as well as the diverse potentialities of his people.

Nonetheless, the overall message of the encounter is that the Jewish people are intended, through HaShem’s intervention, to continue to prosper, proliferate in new geographical settings, reimagine themselves, and ultimately, bring new blessings to the world.

While exile was viewed religiously and historically as the punishment, we are all aware that the Diaspora of the Jewish community has offered numerous contributions to our collective “carbon footprint.”

For example, I recall the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1982, when I was studying in Yeshiva. In the early 1980s, after a period of debate about recognizing the community as Jews, Israel covertly began to bring in thousands of Ethiopian immigrants. In 1991, thousands more came in a secret airlift carried out over two days.

Parenthetically, Ethiopian Jews trace their ancestors to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan. The community was cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 1,000 years. To this day, under its “Law of Return,” Israel grants automatic citizenship to world Jewry.

According to a well-known urban legend, many of the new arrivals worked as domestics and were asked to kosher their employer’s kitchen for Pesach before the holiday. Homeowners, however, returned to their dwellings shocked to find all of their dishes shattered on the floor. Little did the residents understand that in Ethiopia, dishes were made from clay, an item that cannot be “koshered” for Pesach! In Ethiopia, old dishes were, in fact, crushed before the kiln was turned on to make new utensils to inaugurate the Passover festival.

While the new arrivals struggled greatly as they made the transition from a developing African country to an increasingly high-tech Israel, there are now about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, a relatively small minority in a country of 8 million.

Fast forwarding nearly forty years, this year, the Hebrew Union College will graduate its first Ethiopian Rabbi, who no doubt, will bring her unique experiences to the Jewish world at large.

Shoshana Nambi grew up in her village of Nabweya, in Uganda's Abayudaya Jewish community, learning Hebrew at her synagogue and teaching young children’s songs and the weekly Torah portion. Today, she is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, in New York, where she lives with her 13-year-old daughter, Emunah. After graduating from Kampala International University in 2011, she worked part-time as an HIV counselor and agricultural educator. She then worked three summers as a camp programmer and Tefillah coordinator at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA. Learning more about Judaism there paved the way for her dream of becoming a rabbi. She traveled across the USA in the fall of 2013 and 2014 with Kulanu. Inc,. which supports emerging and returning Jewish communities around the world, teaching about her Jewish community with an emphasis on the role of women in her village. In her work, she also shared how the Abayudaya, who are predominantly subsistence farmers, maintained their Jewish identity alongside their Christian and Muslim neighbors.

In many ways, Shoshana, like all of us, represents the fulfillment of the blessings of Yaakov. Regardless of our point of origin, we can all add to the multifaceted nature of the global Jewish mosaic and thus bring our unique contributions to our Kehilla (community) and the world. As we enter the holiness of Shabbat, let us embrace the mandate of Yaakov’s blessings and the message of the title of the Torah portion, Vahechi, and “we shall live.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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