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YU Remembers Mandela: He Made Peace Possible

In a commentary on a Mishna from the Wisdom of the Fathers (Avot 3;14), the Tifferet Yisrael discusses the category of “Hasidei Umot Haolam,” the righteous gentiles, who have a share in the world to come. Amongst the names he lists are Edward Jenner, for discovering the vaccine against smallpox, and Johannes Gutenberg, for inventing the printing-press. Both earned their status for work that benefited humankind by either saving or enhancing life. Nelson Mandela, through his extraordinary capacity to forgive those who oppressed his fellow black Africans and jailed him for twenty-seven years, saved many lives while making a rainbow nation for all South Africans possible.

His leadership, which promoted human dignity and rights while rejecting revenge, is a rare phenomenon. Successful revolutionaries often become harsh rulers, simply shifting suffering from one segment of the population to another. Setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a stroke of genius that allowed South Africa to truly become a country for all its citizens. Mandela’s strength of character and generous nature prevented a racial war that seemed inevitable.

The Torah reminds the Israelites that, having suffered in Egypt as strangers, they have to be particularly sensitive to strangers in their midst. History has demonstrated the inability of most groups to properly treat the “Other." As religious Jews, who believe that humans are created in the image of G-d, we should acknowledge and show proper respect for an individual whose life balanced commitment to the struggle for freedom with recognizing the humanity of his opponents.  It is not necessary to agree with all his positions to acknowledge Mandela’s greatness. His humanity was part of his charm and helped endear him to most of the world. Nelson Mandela’s death leaves a void.

Rabbi Yosef Blau currently serves as the Mashgiach ruchani at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is also the president of the Religious Zionists of America.