“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.
In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.
“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”
Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.
It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.
Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…
Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.
I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.
After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.
After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.
Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.
“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.
“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”
We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.