Mandela changed South Africa and world history just as Joseph in the Bible altered the Egypt of the Pharaohs on the other corner of Africa and shaped Jewish history. Both had a sense of destiny. Both ended up in jail rather than compromise themselves. Both were forgiving and magnanimous when they realized their dreams.
I read Mandela’s speech at the beginning of his 1964 trial. It is chilling to realize how astute he was in his analyses and honest in his commitments. He claimed to want a non-racial South Africa governed neither by communism or a Black majority. That is what he secured when he finally rose to power some thirty years later. He explained the African National Congress’ (ANC) shift to violence, primarily by sabotaging infrastructure, as a strategy to generate an international boycott which would threaten the economy. It took decades but it was boycotts that eventually convinced the White government to give up apartheid.
Idealism is fraught with its own risks. There is a rabbinic legend about four rabbis who undertook the dangerous mystical ascent to pardes (paradise) (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b). One went mad, one died, and one lost his faith. Only Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and left in peace.” Mandela’s equanimity allowed him to survive while maintaining his faith, sanity, and incorruptibility.
It is hard to know how to balance joy in a life with sorrow at it’s passing. Right now I will settle for “Happy Birthday, Nelson.”