Ten years ago, I welcomed in the Jewish New Year in Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad. That experience had an indelible impact on my life. The people I met and the stories I heard broadened my moral landscape in the unique way that only first-hand experiences can do.
Although I had long known that prayer and action are inextricably linked in Jewish tradition, all too often the High Holy Day prayers do not move us enough to action. It is often easy to endure the High Holy Days without being profoundly moved; we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not let it become a perfunctory experience.
Since that visit 10 years ago, I have borne witness to the unfolding tragedy that continues in sub-Saharan Africa. The suffering, the anguish, the loss, the living conditions, the poor health are unimaginable.
Recently, I went to an event that focused on the Holocaust and Darfur. It was sparsely attended. It looked like the same faces I had seen years ago at similar events. The information I heard that night and what I read, especially from credible news sources, is really no different from reports I heard 10 and even five years ago, except for the increase in numbers and the severity of the situation: famine, malnutrition, disease, 400,000 to 500,000 dead as a result of the genocide, 300,000 refugees in eastern Chad, more than 3 million in need of humanitarian assistance. The Janjaweed continues its ruthless work of destroying Darfuri villages; humanitarian organizations operate in dangerous conditions and the world is increasingly indifferent.
As I took all this in, I recall seeing an event advertised a few years back: “What ever happened to Darfur?” The organizers of that event were certainly caring people, but they got the question wrong. It should have been called, “What happened to us: Why we stopped caring about Darfur.”
At the most recent event, I was inspired by the words of Joyce, a Kenyan humanitarian worker in Chad who shared what she and her colleagues do on a daily basis: bringing aid to the sick, doing extensive psychosocial work with the victims, and working endless hours to protect and serve the frail and vulnerable refugees.
Joyce and the other humanitarian workers around the world — whose numbers are diminishing because the work has become so dangerous — are courageous heroes who devote their lives to serving those who lack access to any other kind of help. They are resilient, empathetic, skilled, indefatigable people who I think truly understand the words of Isaiah that Jews will read on Yom Kippur: “Is this the fast I ask for, Is it merely a day of self-reflection? Or is it a fast that will empower you to loosen the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your food with the hungry” (based on Isaiah 58)?
I grew up on the ethic of “Never again,” which seems to have lost all luster after the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, South Sudan and Darfur. Our world conditions today are turbulent and very difficult to comprehend and prioritize: ISIS, Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ebola breakout, to name but a few. Yet can our human sensibilities really afford us the privilege of forgetting the Darfuris, or can we not find a place for them somewhere in our hearts and souls? Perhaps that is the real challenge of the High Holy Days: remembering what we have forgotten.
Ten years ago sitting in Guéréda in eastern Chad, I felt great anguish. I was uncomfortable, confused, tormented by the human condition. Yet, out of that experience, from my conversations with people who had lost everything, I was reminded that those feelings are what the High Holy Days were meant to evoke in us. Indeed, as we gather in community, we are pleased to see loved ones and friends, and we want to feel welcome. However, that is not the core purpose of the High Holy Days — they are designed to cause discomfort, to challenge us to our core, to stimulate us to reflect on our lives and the real changes that we will make in our lives. The experience of the days ahead can possibly sharpen our ethical vision and broaden our moral landscape.
The Jewish question is: What can I do to make a difference? The Jewish journey is one that involves an ongoing commitment to addressing that question.
We have been given a mission. We can help a lot of people. We can transform the world, piece by piece. We can save a few lives. We just need to make that decision.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley and an adjunct professor of religious studies and social justice at the University of San Francisco. He is raising funds and awareness for relief efforts in Chad, Darfur, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Haiti.