Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela & Joseph: Profiles in Reconciliation

 I am truly blessed.

A great gift of Hashgacha Pratis (Individualized Divine Providence) that I am privy to on a regular basis is that somehow the Lord more often than not arranges current events to have a direct connection with the Weekly Sidrah.  I would have to assume that He provides this service not only as a convenience to Rabbis who are searching for a topic for their weekly sermon, but rather it is meant for all of us, to bring home the that the Torah’s lessons in a very direct and meaningful way.  This week was no exception.

The entire world stopped this week, it would seem, to pay tribute to a special man who has gone to meet his maker: Nelson Mandela, former anti-apartheid activist-turned prisoner for life-turned president of the newly non-racist republic of South Africa.  The accolades Mr. Mandela received in his later years were immense, from a Nobel Peace Prize, tributes the world over, and the assumption of an important place in world history as one of the preeminent leaders of the twentieth century.  As Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers all stream this week to South Africa, it is certainly worth considering what his passing means to Am Yisrael.

Unlike all the essays that are being written that are overflowing with superlatives about Mandela's great humanitarian qualities, I begin by noting that there is much in his record that I, and I imagine other Jews, are less than thrilled about.   Although he was basically friendly towards Israel and Jews in general, he was much friendlier to the Palestinian cause.  He was consistently a harsh critic of “the settlements”, and decried “the occupation”, insisting on Israel's duty to return to the 1967 borders.  He called Arafat ימ"ש a friend, and famously said that "our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians".   Following in his and Bishop Tutu's footsteps, South Africa's government decided last year that goods imported from Israeli West Bank settlements cannot not be labeled "product of Israel", and the University of Johannesburg became the world's first to impose an academic boycott on Israel.   (At the same time, it is noteworthy that Mandela never deviated from his belief in Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, and that much of his pro-Palestinian bias was probably based on a simplistic view of the age-old conflict.)  Furthermore, it is true that the ANC (African National Congress) under his leadership at times used some rather despicable means to achieve their ends , and there are various positions that he took that we might rightly deplore.  I assume that some of this is part of the reason that PM Netanyahu decided he was too busy to attend the funeral.

Nevertheless, the greater story of his life, and the achievement for which he deserves all the credit that can be given to him, is the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and rapprochement with the white population that he championed after achieving political power, despite how he had been treated earlier.   There is a long history, particularly in Africa, of long oppressed populations that finally throw off the yoke of their former persecutors, who then begin taking revenge – killing, maiming, and otherwise reveling in visiting misery – on their former interlocutors.  They felt that it was time for payback --  for expression of all the suppressed hatred and misery, both physical and spiritual, that had been imposed for so long.  It was time to take back all of the fortune that had been procured by the formerly dominant culture on the backs of the wretched enslavement of the underclass.   A bloodbath, similar to what happened in Zimbawe, was greatly feared.  Many whites --  including much of the Jewish community -- fled, fearing the worst. 

But it did not happen.  And that was largely due to the message powerfully conveyed by one man – Nelson Mandela.

The message that Mandela mostly succeeded in conveying was that it was time to bury the hatchet, let bygones be bygones, and to move on to a better tomorrow.   He sought to establish a “Rainbow Nation” that would represent people of all races.  He limited reprisals for the past to setting up a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” before which those who had been hostile to Blacks before need now only renounce their former ways, and reconciliation would be offered. Today's South Africa is far from perfect, but it is a very livable place for white people, and that is largely due to Nelson Mandela.

The connection with the story of Joseph jumps right out at you.   A prominent man, convicted due to an unjust trial by the dominant culture, condemned to long years in a terrible prison, not only does not lose his integrity and self-worth, but becomes an inspiration to all and gains the respect of all his fellow prisoners and jailers.   Suddenly the impossible happens.   From the depths of the dungeon, literally overnight, he rises to become the most powerful man in the land, exhibiting a positive attitude that captivates all who meet him.

Even more on point, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, they are speechless and frightened, knowing that the second most powerful man in the world was in fact the brother that they had uncaringly subjected to slavery, torture, imprisonment, and possibly worse, and that they were completely in his power now to do with them as he wished.

But, of course, Joseph knew that a Higher Power and a Higher Purpose was operating, and he showed himself to be above revenge, pettiness, anger – he saw himself as an instrument of Hashem who had been brought to Egypt in His infinite wisdom, in order to bring incredible good to not only his own family, but to the whole world.  He was not about to waste his time, emotions, and energy on trying to fix the wrongs of the past – that could never be undone anyway.   The important thing was to focus on the future, and to bring peace and harmony back into the family and work towards a greater future.

In thinking of this I was reminded of a wonderful Israeli song by Uzi Chitman z”l, called “Mah Chashuv Hayom”.  It was written in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, with all of its trauma and incriminations and pain, when accusations and fear were consuming all too many --   Here is a loose translation:

I shall go forward
I will not look back
And I think of a way,
To forget, not to remember
For whatever was – is no more
God is sitting up there -
Up there in the clouds,
And little me is down here -
Not understanding.

What is important today? - what?
What is important of yesterday? - what?
What is important at all - what?
If we continue to will [it so] - then,
Everything will work out.

I will go on the middle road,
I will not stop marching,
I will also kneel [when appropriate]
I'll go on and on.
For whatever was, is no longer.
God sits up,
With the angels,
And little me is down here
Looking for a way

What is important today? - what?

We shall not know fear,
We shall not recognize pain
We will walk  together
To a happy ending.
For whatever was, is no longer.
I shall set my face forward,
I will not look back.
See now that I promise,
I promise not to return [to the past].

What is important now - what?
אני הולך קדימה, 
לא מביט אחור. 
וחושב על דרך, 
לשכוח, לא לזכור, 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו, 
אלוהים יושב למעלה - 
שם בעננים, 
ואני קטן למטה - 
לא בעיניינים

?מה - היום חשוב מה
?מה – אתמול חשוב מה
?מה  – הכל חשוב מה
אם נמשיך לרצות - אז
הכל יסתדר

אלך על אם הדרך, 
לא אפסיק לצעוד, 
ואכרע גם ברך
אלך לי עוד ועוד. 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו. 
אלוהים יושב למעלה, 
עם המלאכים, 
ואני קטן למטה 
מחפש דרכים. 

מה חשוב היום... 

לא נדע גם פחד, 
לא נדע מכאוב 
ונלך ביחד 
עד הסוף הטוב. 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו. 
את פני אשים קדימה, 
לא אביט אחור. 
ותראו אני מבטיח, 
מבטיח לא לחזור. 

מה חשוב היום...

Little more need be said.

I close with the hope that the memory of Joseph and Lehavdil Nelson Mandela will remain with us.  Although Mandela's imperfect version of reconciliation fell far short of the total graciousness of Joseph, it was astounding neverthelessLet it guide us to overlook the pain that too often separates us, to not let the hurtful past prevent us of seeing the greater good and humanity even in those who may have hurt us.  Allow us to be able to live with differences of opinion with others without losing our sense of brotherhood, and to respect that others with very different views may have some of the truth on their side as well.  May we go to a better tomorrow, not look back, and walk together to a happy ending


Eli and Chany said...

Yes , Mandela had his strengths ...Still, I'm fine with Netanyahu not attending the funeral .

Elie Bulka said...

Great piece Rabbi O. *You* have always consistently displayed the same spirit of future looking and gracious reconciliation that you speak about here. One of your strengths for sure!

Anonymous said...

So in your mashal, who are you comparing Yosef HaTzadik's brother's, the Shivtei Kah, to?

YLO said...

no, I compared Nelson Mandela's actions to, lehavdil, those of Yosef Hatzadik, at least in some respects.