Sudan: Why Jews Must Break the Silence

Sermon given August 27, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

“You must not remain indifferent.” These words, in this week’s Torah portion, may be the most haunting in all of Scripture.

The context, of course, is the fallen donkey or ox, something most of us never see. The closest analogue in our own daily lives is the person on the side of the road with the broken down car. Some of us may be extraordinarily empathetic, stopping to help whenever possible. Almost all of us would offer assistance under some circumstances. For most of us, most of the time, we are in too much of a hurry, or we have concerns for our own safety, or we have problems of our own, or……

“You must not remain indifferent.” The Torah makes itself clear. We do give tzedakah, righteous chairty. We may even become politically active. But how can we become involved in every iota of the overwhelming human suffering that surrounds us? We can care for a sick relative or friend; we can work to alleviate poverty in our community; we can dedicate ourselves to the security of our Jewish people in Israel; we can struggle for peace in Iraq. But can we do it all? How never to become indifferent? We are comforted by the ancient Rabbis’ limitations on God’s expectation of us: “You are not required to complete the task.” But we must finish the sentence: “Nor are you permitted to escape God’s work.”

Most difficult, without a doubt, is to shake off our indifference about problems we do not see, suffering that does not affect us directly, people with whom we seem to have little connection.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller put it best during World War II: “I was not a Jew, so when they came for the Jews, I did not speak. I was not a trade unionist, so when they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak…” He continued in a similar vein, finally saying, “and then they came for me, and there was nobody left to speak up for me.”

Tonight, we concentrate on the tragedy of Sudan. In sixth grade, I had an exacting geography teacher. I can therefore locate Sudan on a map and tell you that the capital is Khartoum, but I would venture to assert that most Americans know far less about Sudan than I, and I knew precious little, until recent months.

Untold violence has raged in Sudan for decades. The victims are Christians, Muslims, and Animists. I am a Jew. My own people have problems. Is this one mine? My own nation is at war, engaged in a great conflict against the evils of terror. Does the conflict in Sudan merit my great concern?

Two months ago, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolved: “The affirmation of all people, which flows from being created in God’s image, is entrenched in Judaism at its very foundation. As a people intimately acquainted with the horrors of genocide, we are obligated to speak out and take action when other peoples are similarly threatened with annihilation. As Jews, we cannot remain silent.” As our Torah teaches: “You must not remain indifferent.”

So what exactly is happening in Sudan? Our member, Jonathan Gurwitz, who has written extensively on the matter for the San Antonio Express News, and who is an expert on international politics, could surely explain better than I, a Rabbi. Here, through, are some facts: Civil war has continued in the Sudan for more than two decades. Lighter skin northern Sudanese Muslims, dominating the government, have oppressed darker-skinned southern Sudanese Christians and Animists. Then, as the world caught on to that particular problem, the Sudanese government in Khartoum and its violent allies turned their deadly ire on darker skinned Muslims in the western province of Darfur. Millions have been displaced. Tens of thousands have died, with hundreds of thousands at risk of death. The number killed over the years exceeds the tolls of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo combined.

The human level of the tragedy is heart-wrenching. In our mind’s eye, let us see the villages and towns burned to the ground for no reason except that the residents have dark skin. Let our hearts feel the pain of the mother, starving herself, powerless to feed her child, to keep the baby alive until she can reach a refugee camp in neighboring Chad. Let us be mindful that the degradation includes withholding food and water, enslavement, rape and slaughter, with interment in mass graves.

Yet still, the world knows too little of the atrocities of the Sudan.

The world must not remain silent. America must not remain silent. Above all, the Jewish people must not remain silent.

The most obvious reference, of course, is to the Holocaust, so let me take a moment to describe my divergent reactions upon visiting the world’s two most significant Holocaust memorials, Yad vaShem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. At Yad vaShem, each time I visit, I am filled with sadness. In the Washington museum, my primary reaction is anger. Moving from one level to the next, we are struck by the newspaper articles displayed on the museum’s walls. In the early 1940s, the press was reporting the facts of Jewish genocide in Hitler’s Europe. And yet, the world did not take notice. America, at war, did not, for the most part, take action. Even the American Jewish community barely paid attention. The anger rises as we realize that knowledge of the atrocities against our people was available, but the world paid no heed. Yes, we are angry.

Today’s world is much smaller. The globe has shrunk. We do know what is happening in the Sudan, just as we knew about the genocide in Rwanda ten years ago, when 800,000 people of the Tutsi minority were murdered in 100 days.

The words of the Torah haunt us: ‘You must not remain indifferent.”

In our own small way, our congregation has not been indifferent. This spring, we allocated a generous grant from out Temple’s Landsman Family Relief Fund to the American Jewish World Service, which struggles mightily to alleviate human suffering in Sudan. Just this week, we hosted an interfaith worship experience, organized by Judy Lackritz of the Jewish Community Relations Council, to bring attention to this far-off tragedy.

But the Torah commands each of us, every single person, not just our collective congregation: “You must not remain indifferent.”

In your Orders of Service tonight, you will find a Congregational Bulletin, supplied by The American Jewish World Service. On the back page, you will find ten actions items for each and every one of us. Let us join our voices to those who refuse to be indifferent about the suffering in Sudan.

We Jews know, all too well, what can happen when the world ignores murder and expulsion and degradation. We have been strangers in this world, marked for death and destruction. Countless times, our Torah commands us: “Remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Today, the world’s strangers are the dark-skinned peoples of Sudan, Christians and Animists in the South and Muslims in Darfur, in the west. Let us remember them, and let us never forget. Let us intervene in today’s attempted genocide, before it must be called another Holocaust, before it is too late.

Let us never be indifferent.