He was for black South Africans their Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, all wrapped into one. He was first a dreamer and activist, a visionary of a new nation. Then he was a long-suffering prisoner of conscience, doggedly fighting for freedom against the old, oppressive order. Then he was the leader of a great national movement, founder of a new government and its first president. He was, no exaggeration, a latter-day Moses: the liberator of his people and its lawgiver. And he was, as well, a latter day Joseph, who, having been tormented and imprisoned by his brothers still found a way (in this week’s Torah portion, Va’Yigash) to forgive them, thus bringing his family together in peace. Nelson Mandela found a way to forgive his tormentors and his people’s oppressors, doing everything in his power to bring his nation together in peace.
In addition to all of his wonderful qualities and acts of great leadership, Mandela had his faults, for sure. He was not always a great manager of government affairs once he became president and he tended to overlook the faults of those who supported him. As Jews, it was hard for us to stomach his embrace of Muammar Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat.
At the same time, as Jews we understood the meaning of the anti-apartheid movement. Many Jews participated in the movement, both in South Africa and abroad. But, even those who didn’t understood that Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom and equality for his people resonated deeply with our Jewish values. His story was another iteration of our master story, the Exodus from Egypt. It was analogous to what we experienced so many times throughout our history. It was a vision we shared for the future of the world.
Nelson Mandela’s soul has now gone to join with the souls of the other great men and women who helped bring about tikkun olam, the repair of the world, taking us all one step closer towards the vision of a world redeemed.
Zecher Tzadik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
Rabbi Jordan Millstein