The poor whom we can't afford to ignore

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester on why he is still haunted by his recent visit to Ghana.

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, October 19, 2011
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester with children he met while volunteering in Sankor, Ghana

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester with children he met while volunteering in Sankor, Ghana

This week, we come in from the cold. A midrash suggests that our time spent out of the house living in a temporary hut is a kind of divinely imposed exile. It is an opportunity for reflection before the final judgment which takes place tomorrow on the festival of Shemini Atzeret (Yalkut, Emor 753). But what should we reflect on that might improve our judgment?

For those of us privileged to grow up in the affluence of the West, a week living in a draughty succah with just a thin pile of leaves for a roof may be the best preparation for understanding our obligations to the world's poorest people.

Rabbi Unterman, the second Chief Rabbi of Israel, lamented that many of us do not appreciate that giving charity to needy non-Jews is a fundamental Jewish obligation. "Therefore", he wrote, "it is a mitzvah to elaborate on this subject even though there is nothing novel about it."

This summer, I joined a rabbis' delegation to Ghana organised by American Jewish World Service. We lived and worked among some of the poorest people none of whom had a toilet, fridge, oven or even a water tap in their home.

In our village, Sankor, many children had marks on their faces. The tribal elders explained that these scars are customarily made by parents who have suffered many miscarriages and cot deaths. It is hard to keep anyone healthy when every drop of water is poisoned by malarial bacteria, but for the vulnerable, life is particularly precarious.

The nearest hospital was miles from our village. Those who reached it discovered that it was more like a primitive clinic than a hospital. My conversation with the doctor and a glance at their website suggested that the whole operation existed largely as a front for missionaries seeking to convert the villagers to Christianity. Perhaps that is why the local witch doctor appeared to have a thriving business.

For the children, life is fraught with danger. Many parents struggle to feed their families, and they are easily duped into selling their offspring to fishermen who entice them with glittering promises that their child will be well cared for, learn a profession and break out of poverty.

In reality, the enslaved five-and six-year-olds are barely fed and they have no home; instead they sleep on the fishing boats or the beaches, where they are routinely sexually abused by their patrons.

These young children are forced to work unbearably long hours diving off the boats into the deep water, where they must untangle the fishing nets when they get caught on the rocks. Since the fishermen pay far more for the fishing nets than they pay for the children, each child's life is easily expendable. Many drown in the freezing water.

From the comfort of Jerusalem, I am still haunted by picturesque images of brightly coloured fishing boats bobbing on the water, which conceal some of the ugliest scenes imaginable: the abuse of hungry, little children. It is all taking place just a short plane ride from here.

A famous rabbi once went to collect charity from a rather arrogant, wealthy man. The rabbi knocked at the door and his host invited him in, but the rabbi stubbornly insisted on remaining outside on the icy doorstep, pleading his cause.

As the host grew colder and colder, he finally challenged his rabbi; "It's freezing out here, why won't you come inside?" The rabbi answered, "If we were to sit in your warm living room, we would both feel comfortable and you would not understand how the poor are suffering and how desperately they need your help. Now, you have tasted their excruciating pain, I am sure you will respond appropriately."

For a week before the final judgment, God sends us out to live in the discomfort of the succah. The message could not be clearer. Not too far from our homes, there are people living and dying in dire poverty. Even if we have not yet seen them ourselves, we have seen their pictures beamed into our living rooms over and over again. We cannot plead ignorance.

As we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret, we should not only think of our beloved homeland of Israel, but also of the people struggling to survive in the parched, drought-stricken lands of Africa.

This is the obligation that we learn from our week in the succah and it is on this basis that God will surely judge us on Shemini Atzeret.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel and directs the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hebrew University Hillel

Last updated: 11:26am, October 19 2011