This article was first published in The Boston Globe
April 19, 2011
By Rabbi Joseph Polak
Two weeks ago, a student found me doing some last-minute packing.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To the Sudan,” I replied.
A little silence followed, and then she said, “Oh, that’s that new bar in Cambridge, right?”
Some days and hours later, far from the opulence and innocence of America, I found myself deep in the southern Sudan, interviewing recently liberated female slaves who showed me how their limbs had been maimed by their masters’ machetes, who described how their genitals had been mutilated, and how these masters had taught their own children to be contemptuous of their concubine mothers.
In Sudan’s civil war between the Christian south and Muslim north, millions of southern Sudanese were killed and displaced from their villages. Many were forced into wandering for years on end; many were taken back to the north for slavery and concubinage.
My interviews were in the context of a celebratory gathering of a large group of recently freed slaves. Christian Solidarity International, a nonprofit that finances and organizes such ventures, invited me here to conduct, of all things, a seder for the slaves it had recently worked to free. My role was to introduce to them some of the practices that Jews have instituted rather successfully these past 3,000 years to celebrate our own freedom from Egyptian slavery not that far north of Sudan.
So there I stood in the equatorial sun, sheltered by a huge mango tree, addressing 160 freed slaves seated on the ground, who, at first, just glared at me in suspicious silence. They spoke only Dinka. Men and women chose to sit separately; many dressed beautifully, others in deplorable tatters, drinking a little wine with me, eating a piece of matzo and a boiled egg. Slowly I prevailed on them to sing with me as a form of celebration familiar to both our peoples; slowly it became clear that we were eating together for the same reason.
I am here, I told them through translators, because my people too were liberated from slavery; like you, we were remembered by God, and there is no greater experience in life than being remembered.
I also told them that more recently my people had again been enslaved; this time we worked 12 to 14 hour days, for Daimler and BMW, for I.G. Farber and Siemens — for no pay, no medicine, no sleep, with a slice of bread per person per day. Millions of us died of typhoid, of malnutrition, and exhaustion; unlike the first time, no one came for us.
Fortunately, the former slaves I met had been delivered to freedom. Say a blessing, I pleaded with them, acknowledge the greatness of this day. If all God had done had been to remember your plight, dayenu, that would have been enough. If all that had happened after that is that you were brought back to your people, dayenu, that would have been enough. But you were also brought back to a land that in July will be fully yours for the first time in history; dayenu — that surely is also enough.