By Ruth Messinger
American World Jewish Service, New York
The extraordinary Rally to End the Genocide in Darfur in Washington, DC, on April 30 of this year occurred at an auspicious moment in the Jewish calendar and in the 40 month history of the genocide in Sudan. Three weeks before the Rally, Jews all over the world gathered around their seder tables and declared:
Halachma anya, di achalu avahatana b’ar’a d’mitzrayim. This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come share our Passover meal.
We say these words as part of the formula of the haggadah, and we often joke about how hungry we are at that moment – the parsley, salt water, and eggs have not satisfied us and we eagerly anticipate the steaming bowls of matzah ball soup and the meal that will follow. But it is worth being thoughtful and precise about the deep meaning of the words in the phrase—affliction, hunger, need.
To do this, we can look to another nearby moment in the Jewish calendar. A week before the Rally, Jews gathered again to commemorate the deaths of six million of our people during the Shoah. From Primo Levi, one of the most eloquent survivors of that catastrophic moment in our history, we can begin to get a sense of the experience of the real affliction of hunger and need in the most extreme conditions of terror. He writes of his time in the camps:
Just as our hunger is not the feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say “hunger,” we say “tiredness,” “fear,” “pain,” we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and without suffering in their homes. If the [camps] had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind with the temperature below freezing, and wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, hunger, and knowledge of the end drawing near.
In conditions of what Tzvetan Todorov called “facing the extreme,” our very language breaks down. The terminology we use to describe our day-to-day experiences doesn’t suffice to capture the catastrophic. And so it is with great anxiety that we received the news, in the few days between Yom Hashoah and the Rally, that due to insufficient funding from its donor nations, the World Food Programme would be cutting rations in half for people starving in Darfur. The people of Darfur, who have suffered all of the terrors of genocide, are now being deprived of the food they need to live.
This reduction, from the minimum daily requirement of 2,100 calories a day to 1,050 calories a day will allow the WFP to stretch its limited food stocks through the particularly challenging summer season, before the next harvest is completed in the fall. According to James Morris, the Executive Director of WFP, “This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Haven’t the people of Darfur suffered enough? Aren’t we adding insult to injury? Food must come first—we cannot put families who have lost their homes and loved ones to violence on a 1000 calorie a day diet. But we have been pushed into this last resort of ration cuts in Sudan so we can provide the needy with at least some food during the lean season.”
The WFP has received just 32 percent of the funding required to provide sufficient food assistance to the people of Sudan. While the United States has been more generous than any other nation in supporting the WFP, many of our allies have been downright stingy. While we should celebrate the incredible demonstration of solidarity that the Rally represented, and we should be supportive and hopeful about the potential for the peace agreement reached in Sudan early in May, there remains much work to be done.
Our Pesach invitation to all who are hungry to come and eat should not lie flat on the page of the haggadah. It should motivate and inspire us to insure that, in a world in which there is sufficient food, no person should go hungry and no child should suffer malnutrition. And that we should never again allow ourselves to come up against the limits of our language to sufficiently describe hunger and suffering.
Questions for Thought, Discussion