05/22/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

Speaking Truth to Power: Sean Penn

The most human prophetic voices in the Bible from Micah to Jeremiah spoke eloquent, piercing words that disturbed the people. It has never been easy to be the person talking about the injustices in the world as the prophet Amos said: "They hate the one who reproves in the gate; they abhor the one who speaks the truth." [Amos 5:10]

It has never been easy to speak truth to power or to the community. There have been many modern day prophets who have challenged us to reconsider the way we see the world, stirred our conscience, provoked us to act in bold and courageous ways: Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, The Dali Lama, Aung Sung Suu Kyi to name but a few of the many modern day prophets.

Prophets are human beings with a conscience, with courage and with conviction who are willing to take the risk of great criticism.

The prophet is the one who questions the status quo, who dreams about a different kind of world, who urges us to think about the needy, the poor, the ill, the disenfranchised in our own communities and around the world.

Often we don't like hearing their voices. Late last week, Sean Penn, another human being with flaws and shortcomings like any of us, spoke with a prophetic voice when he said to the journalists gathered in Cannes: "It's not only celebrities who went for a day. It's the whole ... world. It's all of you...The reason we have Haiti fatigue is because there was never a commitment in the first place."

The language he actually used to the reporters makes many people feel uncomfortable but should our real discomfort not come from the language but from the content that is the truth, that we often do forget and just suffer from humanitarian fatigue? What really is our commitment? As one who has made many trips to Darfuri refugee camps and just last year was in South Sudan and in Haiti; I know firsthand the feeling of the world forgetting about the plight of a people.

So many things distract us from the most important issues, and the media certainly bears a lot of responsibility. We are bombarded with so many stories, where do we learn to differentiate between the important and the trite? Regrettably, many of us have forgotten the people of Haiti, Darfur, South Sudan, New Orleans, West Oakland to name but just a few of the places here at home and around the world where people are still living in conditions that are not fit for any human being -- especially in the 21st century when we have so many resources.

The human and vulnerable prophets that we need to listen to don't just utter words, they take courageous actions. Immediately after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it was Sean Penn and his organization J/P HRO that starting working in this country where the over a quarter of million people died, over a million and half people lost their homes and had no access to food or medical care. As I personally saw last fall, his organization had done and continues to do phenomenal work in Haiti. This was acknowledged in Chicago last month when the Nobel Peace Laureates presented him with the 2012 Peace Summit Award.

We are suffering from humanitarian fatigue. This is understandable given how many issues there are in the world. Yet I do wonder could the media not be doing a much better job of keeping us aware. I especially think of the morning news/magazine programs which now seem to focus much more into the latest scandal or human interest story. Who is really that interested in the New Jersey woman who allegedly took her 5 year old daughter to a tanning booth? Why are there so many interviews with her, why does she keep getting coverage? What if each of the stations eliminated five minutes from this kind of programming to do a humanitarian story that will remind us of the issues that really matter and keep them in our awareness? Would their ratings really go down that much? Indeed, this morning Ann Curry did have Sean on the Today Show - she is one of the journalists who does have a commitment to raising our awareness. However, I still ask why not do a short segment each and every day?

The great 20th century activist, philosopher and teacher, Rabbi Joshua Heschel, another modern day prophet, asked us these questions: "Daily we should take account and ask what have today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every human being."

This quote sits on my desk as a daily reminder to me of what I might do to help transform the world. I am grateful for the prophets who have the courage to speak truth to power and remind me us of the things that really matter in life: how do we make it possible for more people to live in peace with food, shelter, health care and dignity.

More than ever those remain the questions asked of each of us. I am grateful to the prophets who challenge us. My hope is that we spend less time criticizing the prophets, the one who stands in the arena; but rather we let our own prophetic voices motivate us to do a bit more, each and every day.

Rabbi Lee Bycel has been involved in humanitarian work, especially in Darfur, for over a decade. He is president of CedarStreet Leadership.