Ethiopian Jews Arrive, Receiving, Bringing Beautiful New Traditions


Recent olim from Ethiopia celebrate as they dance at a “Hachnasat Sefer Torah” ceremony at The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Ibim Absorption Center. Photo: Ofer Baram, The Jewish Agency for Israel.

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Imagine making aliyah, moving to Israel during incoming missiles from Gaza. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that yesterday, more than 500 new Jewish immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia transformed trauma into joy by welcoming a Torah scroll donated by Charles and Ariela Zeloof. Those at the Jewish Agency’s Ibim Immigrant Absorption Center had spent much of last week in bomb shelters.  

In honor of the arrival and courage of these new immigrants, here is a beautiful story from Ethiopian culture that is creatively retold in Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning by Montreal’s Rabbi Israel Bernath.

“It was the summer of 2001, and I was finding my seat on an Egged bus headed to Tzefat. To my left sat an elderly Ethiopian gentleman; the morning sun protruding from the window cast shadows on his face. His cane leaned against his leg, and a broad smile welcomed me for the next three or so hours. I returned the smile.

“So,” which seemed like a good way to make conversation, “maybe you have a story you can share with me?”

“A story?” He was clearly puzzled, unsure how to stereotype the young, red-bearded, black-hat-wearing rabbi sitting beside him.

“You must have a story to share with the next generation.”

Like an enlightened philosopher, his eyes lit up and his words began to flow:

The story follows the jump.
There was once a king who was growing older in years, and he couldn’t figure out which one of his three children would be the one to assume the throne and rule the kingdom.

His eldest son was strong and brave, a warrior and leader. His middle son was brilliant, quick and witty; he could outsmart just about anyone. His youngest child, his daughter, was young, very young. He loved them all equally and wanted each of them to take over the throne.

He thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. In the middle of the picturesque royal garden, there sat a small shack.

“Whoever can fill the shack to capacity,” the king exclaimed, “will take over my throne.” Each child would have seven days to fill the shack with anything they chose.

The oldest child decided to go first. His siblings watched as he lugged stones and rocks of all shapes and sizes and tossed them into the shack. Day after day he carried the heavy loads. When there was no room left, he filled the cracks and crevices with small pebbles, to fill the room to capacity. At the end of the week, the king walked down the winding, narrow path that led into the garden and reached out to open the door of the shack.

“My son,” the king said as he smiled, “you have filled the shack to capacity; you may be the next king.” He then ordered his servants to empty the shack.

The middle son, the smartest and fastest, took his turn to try to outwit his brother. The others watched as he ran back and forth from the chicken coop to the shack, carrying bags and bags full of feathers, dumping the feathers into the shack, time after time. When there was no room in the shack, he jumped on the feathers to make room for more. Before long, the entire shack was filled to capacity with feathers and so was the rest of the garden.

At the end of the week, the king came walking down the winding, narrow path that led into the garden. The entire garden looked white as snow. The king reached out his hand and opened the door.

“You have surpassed your brother,” the king exclaimed. “With the rocks there were still little holes left over in the crevices. With the feathers, however, you have managed to fill the room to capacity. You may be the next king.”  Once again he ordered his servants to empty the shack.

It was now the youngest child’s turn. The brothers pleaded with their father not to let her compete or at least to wait until she was older.

“She doesn’t understand, father. This is the whole kingdom on her shoulders,” they declared.

The king would not hear of it.

“You each got your turn; now it’s hers.”

The first day passed, and the shack was empty. The second day, the shack was still empty. The third day, still nothing had changed. By now the townspeople had heard of the competition and began crowding around the palace, wondering what the princess had planned.

The fourth day passed, and the shack was still empty. The brothers continued to plead with their father.

“She is making a mockery of the throne.”

The king just waited.

The fifth and sixth days passed and the shack remained empty. On the seventh day, the king slowly walked down the winding, narrow path that led into the scenic garden. Only this time he was not alone. Scores and scores of people followed behind him, wondering and waiting for what would be.

The king reached out his hand to open the shack. People pushed and shoved to try to get a view. A stillness passed over the crowd.  The door opened…and the shack was empty. Yet before a word could be uttered, the young princess passed under the arm of her father the king and headed straight into the shack. She knelt down, reached into the folds of her robes and revealed a small candlestick. She reached back into the folds of her robes and pulled out a candle. She proceeded to light the candle, and the entire shack was filled to capacity with light.

The king smiled. “You, my child, will take over my throne.”

The crowd cheered. The brothers also cheered. They all lived happily ever after.

As the sun sets on Friday evening and I watch my wife light the Shabbat candles and utter the brachot, I think of that bus ride and this story. The Shabbat candles-they fill our homes, our lives, our souls with light. The Shabbat candles-they fill the world with light.”

Yisroel Bernath is a graduate of Central Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim and a Hadassah-WISO diplomat in Structural Cognitive Modifiability. Rabbi, Jewish educator and author of three titles, he has entertained worldwide. He was the liaison responsible for Jewish Cultural Programming in Montreal public schools. His hands-on Hanukkah experience, Maccabees, was visited by over 10,000 children. Yisroel creates quality Jewish children’s entertainment, thus far with Shazak, Inc, Big Bang Animation, Realtime Jewish Media and Young Avraham. Spiritual Director of the Jewish Monkland Centre-Chabad NDG and Loyola Campus. He lives in Montreal with his wife, Sara, and children Chaya, Zalmy and Leiba.