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Chief Rabbi’s Address At Mandela Memorial Service

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Sunday, 8 December 2013

We are gathered here together as the South African Jewish community in order to pay our respects to President Nelson Mandela, and out of deep gratitude for the freedoms which we enjoy – freedoms that President Mandela and his generation fought and sacrificed so much for.

We appreciate the freedom we have to live with dignity; to pursue our values and practice our faith without restriction, contributing to the new South Africa in every facet of life, while remaining proud Jews – proud of our heritage, proud of where we come from; because this is the ethos of the new South Africa – unity in diversity. It is what President Mandela and his generation fought to establish and uphold. And it is a blessing we do not take for granted. Our ancestors – our grandparents and great-grandparents – fled from the persecution of Eastern Europe, where they were denied the freedom to live a Jewish way of life, and where they suffered terribly from poverty, oppression and anti-Semitism. They came to these shores seeking freedom, and since 1994, we finally can celebrate the full meaning of freedom.

As the Torah says that when the slaves are freed in the Jubilee year ”You shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants”. My predecessor, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris of blessed memory, used to ask on this verse – if it’s only the slaves who are being freed, why does it  say, “… for all its inhabitants”? He explained that if there are some people in a country who are not free, then nobody is free. Freedom is indivisible. We can only regard ourselves as free people when all of our compatriots enjoy those self-same freedoms.

And so in 1994 all of us in South Africa became free. We give thanks to G-d Almighty for blessing South Africa with the miraculously peaceful transition to freedom and democracy, and over the past few days, we have paid tribute to the man whose extraordinary leadership, forgiveness and generosity of spirit made such a transition possible.

We also gather to pause and reflect on an astonishing international phenomenon; the global attention that Nelson Mandela has attracted throughout his life, during his illness and now in his death is something quite unprecedented. Now is an appropriate time to reflect on this phenomenon and ask “why”. Why is the world transfixed with Nelson Mandela?

And as always, as Jews, when we try to shed light on anything, we look in our Torah. Amazingly enough, Nelson Mandela passed on the eve of the Shabbat Jews around the world read the portion of Vayigash, which, concluding with Vayechi this week, tells the story of Joseph. The parallels between the lives of Joseph and President Mandela are extraordinary.

Joseph’s brothers turn on him and they throw him in a pit, whereupon he is sold into slavery and cast into exile, before ending up in jail. And then through the blessings of G-d he finds his way out of jail and becomes the prime minister of the super-power of the time – Egypt. And, many years later, when he once again confronts his brothers, he has a choice. Does he let the feelings of bitterness, anger and resentment over the way he was treated – exacerbated by his many years in incarceration – overcome him?  Just as his brothers, whom he loved, had turned on him, does he now turn on them and, from a position of heightened power and authority, to exact vengeance and judgment?

We know that Joseph – described by our Sages as Yosef ha Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous – chose the path of reconciliation. He forgave his brothers. He realised that exacting vengeance would tear the family apart. And so he set aside his own feelings and was prepared to look past all of his suffering – twenty two years away from his family; twenty two years of loneliness and estrangement; twenty two years – many of which were spent imprisoned and confined, and filled with hardship and affliction. He was able to transcend all this suffering.

In many ways, Nelson Mandela is the Joseph of our times. White South Africans – his fellow countrymen, people whom he ultimately regarded as his brothers and sisters – turned on him. He was thrown in jail, where he stayed for 27 years. Yet somehow, he emerged with the saintly grace to put all of that behind him so that the diverse family of South Africa would not be torn apart. And, like Joseph of the Bible rebuilt his family, President Mandela rebuilt his country.

We often speak glibly of his 27 years in jail, but do we have an inkling of what this means? Since President Mandela’s passing, I’ve been re-reading his famous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, (which I think should be required reading for all), and have been struck anew at what he went through. Mandela writes about a demeaning prison restriction on reading newspapers, and what happened when he once transgressed:

“When I noticed the newspaper lying on the bench, I quickly left my cell, walked to the end of the corridor, looked in both directions and then plucked it off the bench and slipped it into my shirt. Normally, I would have hidden the newspaper somewhere in my cell and taken it out only after bedtime. But like a child who eats his pudding before the main course, I was so eager for news that I opened the paper in my cell immediately.

I don’t know how long I was reading; I was so engrossed in the paper that I did not hear any footsteps. Suddenly an officer and two other warders appeared, and I did not even have time to slide the paper under my bed. I was caught black-and-white-handed, so to speak. ‘Mandela,’ the officer said, ‘we are charging you for possession of contraband, and you will pay for this.’ The two warders then began a thorough search of my cell to see if they would turn up anything else.”

And then listen to what happens afterwards. He continues:

“Within a day or two a magistrate was brought in from Cape Town and I was taken to the room at headquarters that was used as the island’s court. In this instance, the authorities were willing to call in an outside magistrate because they knew they had an open-and-shut case. I offered no defence, and was sentenced to three days in isolation and deprivation of meals.”

For reading a newspaper! And then in a more serious sense is the agony of the separation from family. He writes about the first time that he saw his daughter, Zindzi, after being incarcerated. He recounts:

“I had not seen Zindzi since she was three years old. [because there was a prison rule – no children under the age of 16 allowed in jail]. She was a daughter who knew her father from old photographs rather than memory. I put on a fresh shirt that morning, and took more trouble than usual with my appearance: it is my own vanity, but I did not want to look like an old man for my youngest daughter.

I had not seen Winnie for over a year, and I was pleased to find that she looked well. But I was delighted to behold what a beautiful woman my youngest daughter had become and how closely she resembled her equally beautiful mother.”

And then he writes further about the encounter and how uncomfortable she felt.

“When she arrived I said to her”, writes Mandela, “‘Have you met my guard of honour?’, gesturing to the warders who followed me everywhere. I asked her questions about her life, her schooling and her friends, and then tried to take her back to the old days that she hardly remembered. I told her how often I recalled Sunday mornings at home when I dandled her on my knee while Mum was in the kitchen preparing a roast. I recollected small incidents and adventures in Orlando when she was a baby, and how she had rarely cried even when she was small. Through the glass, I could see her holding back her tears as I talked”.

He couldn’t even touch her. He had to see her through the glass.

He also writes, so painfully, about a meeting with his mother when he noticed that his mother wasn’t looking well. And then says several weeks later after returning from the quarry:

“I was told to go to head office to collect a telegram. It was from Makgatho, informing me that my mother had died of a heart attack. I immediately made a request to the commanding officer to be permitted to attend her funeral in the Transkei, which he turned down. ‘Mandela’, he said, ‘while I know you are a man of your word and would not try to escape, I cannot trust your own people, and we fear that they may try to kidnap you.’ It added to my grief that I was not able to bury my mother,  which was my responsibility as her eldest child and only son.”

Twenty seven years in jail enduring this kind of suffering, and to come out of that and be prepared to forgive! To be prepared to look past all of the pain and the torment, is astounding. I think it is this act of transcendence, this greatness of spirit, this ability to rise above personal pain for the greater good of all that that people are awestruck by, and that accounts for the world’s continued captivation with President Mandela. One of our great sages of the last few hundred years, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of Italy, wrote a classic work of Jewish ethics  called Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Just. And he says out of all the qualities that constitute human greatness, the one that is truly angelic is the ability to forgive someone who has hurt or wronged you.

But we also know that Nelson Mandela would have told us that it was not just he, but his entire generation, who suffered under Apartheid. And when we talk about this transcendent spirit of forgiveness we don’t only talk about Nelson Mandela, we talk about an entire country that was willing to set aside indescribable pain in order to start afresh; that was prepared, not to forget, but to forgive. As Mandela wrote: “My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known its greatest wealth is its people,  finer and truer than the purest diamonds.” And that is the South African people. A nation of heroes. Nelson Mandela personified that heroism. He inspired it. He led it. But it was ordinary South Africans who gave expression to his lofty vision, who upheld it and made national reconciliation a reality.  The greatness of Nelson Mandela is a reflection of the greatness of spirit of South Africans across the length and breadth of this country.

And ultimately it all comes down to optimism. Optimism is what gave Nelson Mandela the ability to rise above the pain and resentment to chart a new direction for the country. It was his optimism that helped him see the essential goodness in humanity, even in those who oppressed him. In Hebrew, we call it Tikvah, hope.

There is a particularly stirring passage in Long Walk to Freedom, in which President Mandela describes a later visit from his daughter, Zeni, very soon after the birth of her first child. As he explains, she was able to touch him because she was married to a Swazi prince and as a member of the Swazi royal family was not subject to the normal laws of the jail. And when she came into meet her father, she arrived at the prison with her husband and her new born baby. Mandela describes what happened next:

“To hold a new born baby, so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands,  hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I don’t think a man was happier to hold a baby than I was on that day …

It is the custom for the grandfather to select a  name, and the one that I had chosen was Zaziwe – which means ‘Hope’. The name had a special meaning for me, for during all my years in prison hope never left me – and now it never would. I was convinced that this child would be a part of a new generation of South Africans for whom apartheid would be a distant memory – that was my dream.”

Like Joseph of old – a dreamer. Nelson Mandela’s dreams for a better future survived the depths of the darkness of his Robben Island prison cell– through sheer force of will and true greatness of spirit, but most of all, through hope. Hope. Zaziwe. Tikvah. This is his legacy. This is what he gave to South Africa and the world.

And so, during these momentous days, as South Africans and people around the world reflect on the greatness of Nelson Mandela, let us renew our hope and faith in G-d Almighty, our hope and faith in the greatness of every human being created in G-d’s Image.

May G-d bless us, may he bless Madiba, together with all of those struggle heroes who have passed on. May he bless the Mandela family at this time of their grief; and may He bless all South Africans, and, indeed, all people, – in the merit of the struggle, in the merit of the sacrifice, and in the merit of our faith our hope.

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