Mandela Was Africa’s Other Joseph

Nelson MandelaAt the time Mandela died I began writing this piece. Today is Nelson Mandela Day, celebrating his birthday. This seemed like a good time to finish my tribute.

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.”


8 thoughts on “Mandela Was Africa’s Other Joseph

  1. I don’t understand how this comparison can be made even while uttering lehavdil elef havdalos.

    Yosef Hatzaddik as he is known is in some ways the diametric opposite of Mandela. You should look up some of the Midrashim about him.

    Evelyn Mandela, who died at age 82, was the first Wife Of South Africa’s Ex-President, Nelson Mandela. She quit the marriage after telling Mandela that he had to choose between her and the African National Congress liberation movement. There were also allegations that Nelson Mandela had committed adultery, and because of her Bible standards on morality, she broke the marriage. ·

    His biographer Anthony Sampson once said he was a “ladies’ man and proud of it”.

    Yosef Hatzaddik was also a master statesman while many would argue that Mandela was anything but:

    Mr Mandela himself, personally decent but politically ineffectual and naive, served as both figurehead and figleaf for the new order. The world ignored or forgave his continuing friendships with the world’s worst despots, and the fraudulent bungling that surrounded him.

    • My analogy was limited to accurate predictions and to not being vengeful. I stand by that. His relationship to Jews and Israel is worth a longer discussion, but there too I have never seen any indications he was personally antisemitic. Isralis used to complain about Arafat: we cant make a deal with him; he is not a statesman like Mandela. Mandela’s life’s work was about S. Africa, not Israel. In RSA he succesfully managed a peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy.

  2. Several observations about Rabbi Sidelsky.

    He is a baal teshuva. I don’t know how long he was in Kerem bYavneh that would have ever developed a kesher with a rebbe who could guide him.

    There is a klala to change the nusach of berochos & tefillos instituted by the Anshei Kneses Hagedolah for any reason. It would be worthwhile to see in the meforshim on the siddur if Acheinu kol Beis Yisroel is from their cannon.

    Jewish leaders have a tendency to defend leaders of their own country, often for the very safety of the community. They do this even for the Mullahs in Iran. I could imagine that if the South African Jewish leadership was openly critical of Mandela there would be ugly retaliation by ANC followers.

    Sidelsky himself sidesteps the questions of Mandela embracing vicious anti-Semites with Jewish blood on their hands.

    Arim4’s lashing out from the Left is typical. He’s got his self-hating Chiloni newspaper from Israel & a secular NY paper that started as a Communist atheist organ, but even Haaretz admits that there was protest from within the South African Reform community when Mandela was warmly received at a temple. Nothing is false except for Arim4’s warped Leftist philosophy.

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