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A Tribute To President Nelson Mandela

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

At this sad time of loss, the South African Jewish community extends its sincere condolences to President Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graça; to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and to his entire extended family. To all of them we repeat what Jews traditionally say at a house of mourning: we wish you long life, and may the Almighty comfort you amongst all mourners.

We, along with all South Africans and indeed with the nations of the world, mourn the passing of our beloved Madiba, who was such a revered leader and icon. Although President Mandela’s passing is a source of national and international mourning, our thoughts and prayers are first and foremost with the Mandela family. We must never lose sight of the fact that he was a man with a wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and an extended family. They are the primary mourners. Theirs is the primary loss. How impoverished they must feel after having experienced the joy of his wonderful presence. We think of them and,, extend to them our heartfelt condolences.

And yet, in a certain sense, we are all mourners; we have lost a great leader, a true father figure for the South African nation and a source of inspiration for us all. We are all bereft; the world will not be the same without Nelson Mandela. Even though we have not benefitted directly from his leadership in the last few years, simply knowing that he was among us created an aura of comfort; and now that he is gone, South Africa, and indeed the world, is a sadder, emptier and poorer place. And so we are all mourners and we all feel a great sadness at his passing.

Members of the South African Jewish community have had a close and significant relationship with Madiba. This relationship involved many important phases of Nelson Mandela’s life. He began his career in the law articled to a Jewish attorney. Through his years of involvement in the struggle, South African Jews stood alongside him in his mission dedicated to achieving freedom for South Africa; some of them were his co-accused in the Rivonia trial.

South African Jews were also in the legal team who defended Nelson Mandela during his trial. And during his years on Robben Island, many members of our community, including Helen Suzman, among others, reached out to him and to other political detainees and did their best to help them cope with the terrible pain of prison life and advocated for their release. And again after his release, members of the South African Jewish community were at his side, enthusiastically involved in rebuilding the New South Africa.

And so, while we mourn together with the entire nation, we, with our communal memories of our personal connections with Nelson Mandela., have a sense of profound loss at the passing of Madiba. It is important for us to acknowledge that, to pay tribute to these.

At a time like this, we grapple too with the question of what the appropriate response is to our loss, the loss of the country and, indeed, that of the world at large. I turn here to Judaism to give us guidance. Judaism maintains that when a person passeson, we can perpetuate their memory and legacy by doing good deeds in their merit. Taking the inspiration they gave us and using it to make the world a better place is the greatest way we can pay tribute to someone whois no longer with us in this world of the living.

In a certain sense, this is what the Kaddish prayer, – the mourner’s prayer of sanctifying G-d is about. It conveys that although the deceased is no longer with us and  can no longer do all the good he or she was doing in the world, we who remain can do good. We have to redouble our efforts to do good in the world, in the deceased’s merit; to carry on the legacy of their values and their life’s work.

And thus, in the spirit of Kaddish and what Judaism teaches us, we all have a great responsibility to rededicate ourselves to live in accordance with the values of Nelson Mandela, and so to make the world a better place. The greatest tribute we can pay to Mandela is to live in accordance with the values he practised and taught: human dignity, forgiveness, kindness, integrity and wisdom. When we live faithful to these values and concern ourselves with making the world a better place as he would want us to do, we enfuse with profound significance the moral legacy he bequeathed to us in the most powerful and eloquent sermon of all: his life.

Mandela’s life story has very important lessons for us, and he clearly knew that. This emerges very powerfully in a passage in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, where he talks about his fifty-seventh birthday, on Robben Island in 1975.

As I read this passage, the agony of Mandela being in jail for all those years really struck me. We often talk about Mandela’s twenty-seven years in jail and the suffering that that entailed, but do we  actually understand what it means to celebrate a fiftieth birthday in jail in 1968, with no hope of getting out? He was released in 1990; in 1968, sentenced to life imprisonment, he didn’t even know whether he was ever going to be released – as far as he knew, he could have died in jail.

Understanding what it was like for him to be in jail year after year makes us appreciate even more the fact that after all those years he was able to emerge from prison with his boundless generosity of spirit and forgiveness unscathed. He achieved an awe-inspiring level of greatness; in fact, the Messilat Yesharim, one of our great philosophical works of the last few hundred years, teaches that forgiving someone who has hurt us elevates us to the highest levels a person can achieve in this world -, comparable to the level of angels.

When someone wrongs useven in a minor respect, we often find it hard to forgive. Nelson Mandela had the generosity of spirit to forgive, even after spending twenty-seven lonely years in jail, away from his wife and family, in conditions we cannot even begin to imagine.

He writes:

My fiftieth birthday had passed without much notice in 1968. But in 1975, when I turned 57, Walter and Kathy approached me with a long term-plan that would make my sixtieth birthday rather more memorable.

He describes how Walter Sisulu came to him with a suggestion for a project which would culminate with his sixtieth birthday: that he write the story of his life. I quote:

Walter said that such a story, if told truly and fairly, would serve to remind people of what we had fought and were still fighting for. He said that it could become a source of inspiration for young freedom fighters. The idea appealed to me, and during our subsequent discussion I agreed to go ahead.

He then describes how he had to write it in secret, because doing so was prohibited by the prison authorities, who knew that the prisoners aimed to smuggle his story out and get it published. He describes in detail his daily routine:

I would write most of the night and sleep during the day. During the first week or two, I would take a nap after dinner, wake up at 10 p.m. and then write until it was time for breakfast. After working at the quarry I would then sleep until dinner and the process would begin again. After a few weeks of this, I notified the authorities that I was not feeling well and would not be going to the quarry. They did not seem to care and from then on I was able to sleep most of the day.

He wrote all through the night and then handed his notes to Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and others who made their own notations checking that everything written accurately reflected their experiences. I quote again :

This marked-up manuscript was then given to Laloo Chiba, who spent the next night transferring my writing to his own almost microscopic shorthand, reducing ten pages of foolscap to a single small piece of paper. It would be Mac’s job to smuggle the manuscript to the outside world.

They had to do this under the watchful eyes of the warders. Most of what was eventually published in A Long Walk to Freedom was written in prison; Nelson Mandela had a burning passion to share his story with the world. The original manuscript was buried in the prison courtyard on Robben Island, and he writes how, when the authorities found it, they punished him by depriving him of study privileges for four years – all for the “crime” of writing his life story. Fortunately a copy of the manuscript was smuggled out of prison and so has been preserved.

How sad, yet heroic; how committed he was to conveying his life story to us. Why was this so important to him? I believe it was because he knew that people would draw inspiration from it. And as millions of people in South Africa and around the world contemplate what we have lost, our response should be to look at his life and see what we can learn from it; to be inspired by his greatness and the values by which he lived – his heroism, strength, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom and integrity. Reading his autobiography gives us a picture of who he really was. We should all read it and internalise the precious lessons of Nelson Mandela’s life.

There is so much to learn from the stories of his life. And the more we repeat and understand them, the more we will be inspired by them. To be in jail for twenty-seven years and to come out with a vision and a passion to rebuild the new South Africa, with such a spirit of forgiveness, is truly awe-inspiring.

I recall one particular story, told by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris of blessed memory – who was particularly close to President Mandela – which so beautifully captures Mandela’s greatness. In his memoirs, Chief Rabbi Harris recounts the following incident, which happened as President Mandela departed after a memorial service held for Yitzchak Rabin at the Oxford Synagogue in November 1995:

As he was going down the line he was interrupted by a young boy aged about ten wearing a large black hat, who pushed his way through and stuck out his hand in greeting. The President, Mandela, took it; he never ignores anyone, however small. And there ensued the following hilarious conversation:

“Tell me, young man, what is your name?” The President asked. The boy told him.

“And which school do you go to?”

“Torah Academy,” the boy answered with pride. The President had never heard of this Lubavitch school but nodded as if he had.

“Very good,” he continued. “Tell me, do you study hard?”

The boy’s face shone. “Oh sir, he replied, I study really hard – morning, afternoon and evening.”

“That’s fine,” said the President encouragingly. “I want you to know that if you continue studying really hard, one day you may become the President of South Africa.”

There was a pause. “What – me?! Become President?!” The startled boy uttered, looking up from behind his big black hat. “I can’t become President, I am not black.”

The President looked down at him. “Young man,” he declared with great seriousness, “this is a democracy.”

That story tells so much about President Mandela and his care and concern for every person. He treated everyone with dignity and warmth; he made time for everyone, even for a little boy. It also tells us about his vision for the new South Africa – that it would be a place where any South African could become president; he truly believed in that, with a passion. That was his moral vision for this country, and it is a tribute to him that the new South Africa transitioned peacefully to democracy, with tolerance and the upholding of human rights.

Our duty at this time is to contemplate the values President Nelson Mandela lived for and to which he devoted his entire life, and to realise the awesome responsibility that is now on our shoulders as we pay tribute to his life and his legacy. The greatest tribute we can pay to him and to the sacrifices he and his family made is to continue his work. And we call upon all of our fellow South Africans to join hands with us at this time of loss and mourning, as we rededicate ourselves to Mandela’s mission.

We extend again our heartfelt condolences to President Mandela’s family, his wife, his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the entire extended family, as well as to our fellow South Africans. We pray to G-d that He bring comfort and strength to President Mandela’s family and to us all. May we be inspired to carry on the legacy that our beloved Madiba gave to us and, indeed, to all of human kind.

G-d bless you and thank you.

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