Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This column was dictated by Rabbi Shmuley from the basecamp of Mount Kilimanjaro, hours prior to his attempt to summit the mountain.
I came to Mount Kilimanjaro, the fabled roof of Africa, because I wanted to experience the glory of God as manifest in the beauty of nature. My wife and I were in Africa to see the Rwandan genocide sites we had no visited last year, and to attend our son Mendy’s Rabbinical ordination in Pretoria, South Africa. Squeezed between two extremes of horror and celebration, we wanted to push ourselves to the limit of our own endurance in order to be uplifted by a wonder of the world that can only be seen from its summit of 19,341 feet. I also wanted to bring my Judaism with me to one of the portals of the world, to prove that Jewish observance can be maintained at every time and at every place. Finally, in the 25th year of our marriage, I wanted my wife and me to share an experience of unique solitude and togetherness, to accomplish something jointly that pulled us away from the noise of modern life and threw us into the serenity of an alternate universe atop the world.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is a kin to immersion in a weeklong Sabbath. There is no electricity. Your phones, for the most part, do not work. When they do, you feel a small sense of disappointment, but it’s a concession you make because you of course have to check up on the kids. “Okay, I confess. I called the office as well.” Bathing is out, although for your own comfort, and especially that of the people around you, you wash daily in a small basin of water.
Kilimanjaro has provided me with many firsts. It is the first time in my life that I ever heard the sound of silence. It turns out that the sound is not an invention of Simon and Garfunkel. Moving away from our camp, yesterday, at 12,500 feet, I walked to find an inspiring place to recite the afternoon prayer of Mincha. I ambled over a ridge, faced north towards Jerusalem, and looked down at the ocean of cloud that was thousands of feet below me and engulfed the Earth. Suddenly, the utter stillness and total silence began to chime in my ears. And I heard it. The ringing sound of nothingness. I began my prayer, pouring my heart to a creator who was responsible for such resplendent beauty and solitude. Since then, we climbed this morning another 3,000 feet. For us, it was a slow, hard, sludge. But the rule of the climb is single file, and I walked right behind my wife. Her determination and resilience is like an invisible rope that is pulling me up the mountain. The air gets thinner and thinner as you ascend, but the scenery becomes evermore magical and surreal. You pass thru four zones before the summit: Cultivated, Heather, Moorland, and Alpine Desert, the most interesting and dreamlike of all. Nothing grows here, and it’s closest resemblance, although I have no plan to hike there, is the surface of the moon.
Finally, we have reached the base camp to the summit, the final step before we reach the highest point of the world’s most mysterious continent. The air around us is tinny. Breathing, while thank God not difficult, is definitely a strain from our sea level home in New Jersey. We have, thankfully, thus far avoided altitude sickness due to the expert guidance of Onest Mtuy our head guide, and the deliberate but slow pace of James Utanga, our assistant guide. I have had some mild headaches, but they have disappeared once I gulped some water. Still, one of the telltale signs of altitude sickness is disorientation and hallucinations, and it is therefore for you the reader to decide the extent of my exposure from the rationality of this prose.
“Earlier today, my guides thought I had lost it completely when I demonstrated signs of a Napoleon complex until my wife assured them that I had suffered from it all my life.”
We are fortunate to be with the world leader in Kilimanjaro climbs, Thomson Safaris, whose mastery of logistical detail is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their detailed accommodation of our Kosher requirements – using only brand new utensils and granting us supervision over an all vegan diet – was the icing on the cake.
It takes a team of twelve to fifteen to bring you up the mountain. At first, as a white Westerner, you experience a sense of guilt. This little army just for us? We are not that important. But then you start hiking and you hear the stories of the porters, all of whom are strong, friendly, with fascinating personal tales of the tribes whence they stem. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, the porters rely on a salary that is considerably more to feed their families. Most are married with children. The Kilimanjaro climbs, they tell me, are an absolute essential part of the regions economy, employing, ultimately, tens of thousands of people.
It’s now approaching the time for us to suit up and get ready for temperatures at the top of the mountain that hover, on average, at ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit. If you are reading this column, you are bearing witness to two miracles. The first is the miracle of technology that actually allowed me to dictate this column from more than 15,000 feet. The second is the glorious miracle from God that I am still alive to tell the tale.
Pray for me that in about seven hours, when we arrive at midnight, I will make it to the top, at which time I will attempt to take off three or four layers of clothing and put on my talis (prayer shall) and tefillin (scriptures in leather boxes donned for prayer) to offer thanks to God from one of the highest points in the world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the International best-selling author of 29 books and an award-winning columnist. The Founder and Executive Director of This World: The Values Network, an organization devoted to promoting universal Jewish values globally. He will shortly publish his newest book, “Kosher Lust”. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Thomson Safaris can be found at www.ThomsonSafaris.com.
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August 7, 2013 | 9:22 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Rwanda might not be everyone’s idea of a family trip, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world and, after visiting last year to highlight the 1994 genocide and promote anti-genocide legislation during my run for Congress, I wanted my children and some notable Jewish personalities to experience it with me. Much has happened in that year, including Rwanda occupying the Africa seat on the United Nations Security Council and announcing that they will be opening an embassy in Israel imminently. I now try and come every year to Rwanda, especially in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and this year the billionaire Jewish philanthropists, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, made the trip possible to promote the brotherhood of the Jewish and Rwandan people, both of whom have been subjected to unspeakable horrors but are committed to healing and hope.
The visit was sufficiently important to me that I came with my family despite the State Department shutting down the American Embassy in Kigali – along with 20 others around the world – due to security alerts.
Why am I here? Because no country on earth today reminds us moderns of the responsibility of man to his fellow man and no country has bounced back from a genocide with such determination, forgiveness, and resilience. And I wanted my kids – as I visited more of the atrocity sites and met with government officials – to experience the country with me.
In the Jewish community the word survivor evokes men and women in their eighties whose families were wiped out by the Germans. In Rwanda, those same survivors are in their twenties and thirties, like our guide today, Gaspard, whose ten siblings were macheted to death and his father shot before his very eyes when he was a boy of nine.
The first thing you notice as you drive through the streets of Kigali, the capitol, from the airport, is the cleanliness. It is no exaggeration to say that Rwanda is probably the cleanest country on earth and any visitor would notice the same. At the airport you have to throw away any plastic bags you’ve brought. What’s referred to as the ‘flower of Africa’ are not allowed into the country. I actually took a picture of a cup strewn on the side of a highway because I had rarely seen even one litter Kigali before.
Next, the rolling curves of a landscape known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ immediately makes its mark. The closest thing we Americans have similar to Rwanda’s topography is West Virginia, and Rwanda has an excellent road system that takes you up and down the hills to where you need to go.
The gentility of the people is evident everywhere. English is abundant and it’s spoken with a softness and delicacy that makes it pleasant to hear.
The country is as green as anything I have ever seen in Africa and agriculture surrounds you from every stop. Women and men are heaving hoes, planting and harvesting wherever you look. It’s an incredible site.
But it’s tragic history is ever-present. Memorials are strewn throughout the country as well as mass graves housing the nearly one million who were hacked to death in a racial genocide of Hutu on Tutsi that was the fastest in the history of the world, claiming the lives of 300 people every hour for the three months of April to June 1994.
The last time I was here I visited a Church outside the capitol where, not being ready for the gruesome skeletal remains of five thousand innocent people who were butchered, I gagged, threw up, and could not breathe.
Today it was much worse. We traveled south for two hours to the Murambe Genocide Memorial where on April 21st, 1994, more than fifty thousand people were shot, bludgeoned, and hacked to death in the middle of the night in just a matter of hours. One thousand of their lime-covered bodies are displayed on wooden tables in a scene so macabre that it constitutes the single most disturbing site I have ever witnessed in my life. Rwanda, like the Jewish people before them, faces a cottage industry of genocide deniers and they are intent on displaying the full gore of the tragedy so that it can never be denied. While we Jews contend with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who deny the holocaust so as delegitimize Israel and its security needs, the Rwandans face a similar onslaught by those seeking to cripple its government.
There was an incongruence in the air as our older children, who joined us in the memorial, gasped for breath as they saw the bodies while a few hundred yards away our young children played in a park, laughing and frolicking. The surrounding hills were as silent and serene as the dead, and I was reminded of the quiet and stillness of Auschwitz where all is mute as you walk through the gas chamber ruins.
I first became interested in visiting Rwanda through Michael Jackson’s children’s nanny, a woman named Grace, who would return every summer to her native country to see her family. I finally made the decision to visit after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, met General Charles Kayonga, Rwanda’s chief of staff, who invited me. I have since become a firm admirer of this stalwart people and especially its president, Paul Kagame, who ended the genocide in 1994. That Kagame could bring the world’s most failed state back to a position of progress and prosperity less than two decades after the fastest genocide in world history is a miracle. That he is a staunch friend and admirer of the Jewish people and the State of Israel is of great consequence, especially on the African continent.
Kagame himself faces significant criticism today over allegations of foreign involvement in Eastern Congo and for not allowing sufficient democratic freedoms in his country. Experts greater than me are currently debating the veracity of such claims. Some believe the allegations have merit while others are more understanding of a leader who has sworn to protect his people from genocidal forces – the children and ideological heirs of the original Hutu butchers – that still amass on his border. But one cannot help but admire a man who witnessed his people being exterminated while the world watched in silence, rustled up his troops to stop the killing, conquered the entire country with great alacrity, and when he took power did not retaliate against the Hutu majority who had turned Rwanda into an ocean of blood.
Others might even argue that Rwanda has been too forgiving of some of the killers. While driving through the countryside I inquired as to the identity of the many middle-aged men in orange jumpsuits who were working the fields. I was told they were inmates in prisons. “What is their crime,” I asked our guide. “Genocide,” he said. “These are the men who did the killing. Their punishment is to work the fields and grow produce.”
Grow produce. A punishment somewhat different to what was meted out at Nuremberg.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. He has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow his live Twitter feed of his visit to Rwanda @RabbiShmuley.