We can continue to make a difference in Darfur

The beginning of a new year is always filled with hope, potential and opportunity for growth and change. The year we are putting behind us has not been an easy one. Our economy has entered perilous waters, with many people losing their jobs — and their homes. The war in Iraq is now in its fifth year. A series of hurricanes have ravaged our coasts. In our own lives, each of us has faced personal challenges that have tested our strength and resolve.

Amid all these issues, from the local to the global, it’s understandable that we should feel a sense of vertigo. We tell ourselves the situation is too complex. We ask ourselves if our efforts truly make a difference. We question which issues deserve the most attention.

Some have called this feeling “compassion fatigue.”

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve spoken about Darfur for five years straight now, and sometimes I get tired of talking about the genocide that has claimed 450,000 lives, just as I’m sure people get tired of listening to me talk about it. Yet for me, as for many other Jews, there is simply no choice in the matter. This is because as Jews, we know what it is like to have the world forget and to have the world fail to act.

But if we choose to not to raise our voices about Darfur now, what will our children and grandchildren say about us? The approaching High Holy Days draw questions like these to the forefront.

Many of us have answered by taking action on Darfur. Yet, now in the fifth year of this grueling genocide, some are also asking, “Did the letter I wrote to my senator help? Did taking part in that rally have an impact?”

The answer is yes. We may not be able to place a precise number on the lives saved as a result of our efforts. But we can say our activism has contributed to 27 states adopting divestment policies for Sudan. We know that we have made Darfur a foreign policy priority for elected officials, as well as the presidential candidates. And we have ensured that humanitarian aid continues to go where it is most needed.

Here’s what we can do now to help end the bloodshed: Push for expanding and enforcing an arms embargo to the region and pressure China, the biggest small arms dealer to Sudan, to stop the flow of weapons there. Let your senators know that you want the United States to support the embargo as a member of the U.N. Security Council. Tell them you want the U.S. government to use its influence to pressure China to stop underwriting the genocide with arms sales.

Now is not the time to diminish our resolve. Khartoum continues to deploy deadly air attacks. Last month, more than 30 civilians were killed when Sudanese government forces, armed with machine guns and automatic weapons of the kind sent by China, attacked one of Darfur’s largest camps for displaced people.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I am mindful of this passage from the Book of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice? To undo the fetters of bondage? To let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?”

Nowhere have I been brought more closely in touch with the meaning of these words than when I sat with Darfuris in a refugee camp in eastern Chad, welcoming the new year. The High Holy Day is meant to stir us, to shake us to our core. It is meant to reconfirm our values and strengthen our resolve to live by them. Because at the heart of the holiday experience is this enduring ethic: We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to inaction. For Jews, life is about deeds.

When the shofar is sounded on the new year, it is to awaken us from our slumber to the need in this world. Let the shofar’s blast be a clarion call for each of us to remember that we can make a difference, and that each of us has a role to play to stop the killing in Darfur.

The action you take today or tomorrow on behalf of this cause likely won’t be the last. But it will be the right act, the necessary act at this moment in time. The people of Darfur are waiting for the world to hear their cries.

We must answer their call.

Rabbi Lee T. Bycel is executive director of the American Jewish World Service Western Region.

Dousing Dreams

Your child comes home and says she wants to be a doctor someday. Your spouse or serious beau tells you he or she dreams of being something greater. And you douse the dream with a comment: “You aren’t smart enough,” “You don’t have the skills needed to do that” or “No one will take you seriously.”

Or that same person, rather than dreaming of embarking on a career or changing one, dreams of intensifying her relationship with God or his Jewish religious practice, from lighting Shabbat candles to going to shul more regularly.

Again, the aspiration for something greater than mediocrity is doused: “But you are not really a religious person,” “You travel on Shabbat” or “Stop being a hypocrite, and just go to the beach on Saturday with the family.”

So much of life consists of dreams and hopes, aspirations for something greater that get stanched and vanquished by those close by. They might be family or well-intentioned friends. They think they know you and what’s best for you.

And, as you dream of sailing the stars in the skies, they remind you that you have never done it before, that no one in your family has done it before and that you should just stay home, crack open a beer or call some old friends.

In Ha’azinu, Moses delivers an epic poem to the Jewish people on the eve of his passing. He begins with the words: “Listen, O Heaven, and I will speak. And hear [from] me, O Earth, the utterances of my lips” (Deuteronomy 32:1).

On their surface, the words are not unusual in their repetition. Ancient Mideast poetry consisted of reciting phrases in couplets of symmetry and repetition. Archaeologists have found ancient Ugaritic poetry, for example, written in the same way.

But there is one nuance in that opening verse that stands out profoundly, despite its subtlety. “Listen — Heaven. Hear me — Earth.” The nuance is underscored by the prophecy of Isaiah that we read on the Shabbat leading into Tisha B’Av, where he tells the Jewish nation: “Hear [me], O Heaven, and listen [to me], O Earth” (Isaiah 1:2). Interesting difference: “Listen — Earth. Hear me — Heaven.”

A person asks someone else to “listen,” when the second person is close by. A person asks whether someone can “hear” him when he is separated by some distance. “Can you hear me back there?” “Moses, would you please listen more carefully?” We instinctively know when to use the words, having learned our language well. It is the same in Hebrew.

Moses was at the end of a lofty life and career spent in extraordinary communion with God. No one ever saw God as Moses did, and there never again has arisen a prophet among us of the elevated level that Moses possessed. So when Moses spoke to the heavens, he asked them to listen. They were proximate. And, as his moments in this world slowly ticked to the end, he reflected his growing distance by asking the earth to “hear” him, too.

By contrast, the prophet Isaiah was one of us, a more regular person, albeit of extraordinary holiness and sanctity, meriting his choice for the historic roles that God demanded of him in prophecy. But, despite that saintliness, when Isaiah addressed the earth, he asked it to “listen.” He asked the heavens to “hear” him.

Moses and Isaiah used words that reflected in the most natural way how they saw themselves. Moses saw himself, in all modesty, as closer to heaven; Isaiah to earth. As they saw themselves, they used the verbs that matter-of-factly conveyed that perception.

The way we see ourselves can affect how we speak, how we think, how we act. If we see ourselves as holier, we often move in that direction. Not always. No, not always. But we have a chance to grow to something greater.

When people around us douse those perceptions, particularly when the self-vision emanates not from hubris but from a humble dream to be greater, to grow and to take on something never tried before, those “well-wishers” are doing no service of friendship. They are dousing dreams.

It takes a great deal to dream. It takes even more to actualize dreams when so many friends and family are on hand to remind us that our dreams are foolish, hypocritical, ridiculous. Yes, we need a foot in reality. But it also is OK to dream and to strive for something greater. To set sail for the stars in the sky. If only they can hear us.

Or listen.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.