Celebrate the Life and Times of Nelson Mandela

By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

Friday, December 06, 2013


Next week in the Torah we read of Jacob blessing his family before he dies. For some, words of wisdom are only heard at the edge where life meets death. For that reason, Dylan Thomas pleading with his dying father to bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There are others, who, with words and deeds bless us during their lives. Nelson Mandela was such a man. Yesterday evening in South Africa, one of the great persons of our lifetime died. The world mourned with South Africans the death of the man (aged 95) who led the fight to end the system of apartheid and then went on to lead the country itself. “We will always love Madiba (affectionate clan name) for teaching us that it is possible to overcome hatred and anger in order to build a new nation and a new society,” said the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Nelson Mandela’s earliest impact on his nation and the world occurred during the Rivonia trial (named for the Johannesburg suburb that was the location of the hideout for a militant wing of the African National Congress). According to many, it is “the trial that changed South Africa.” 

In the fall of 1963, Nelson Mandela and ten other leading opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime went on trial for their lives. The charges were sabotage and conspiracy, and there was little doubt that Mandela and most of the other defendants would be found guilty.  Desperate times had dictated desperate measures. Standing in the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, Mandela declared:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He spent the next 27 years in prison (1964-1990) after being convicted of treason by the white minority government. For the first 18 years he worked in a lime quarry and was allowed one letter and one visitor every six months. 

He was finally released in 1990. He emerged from prison preaching forgiveness, harmony and unity. He then led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to victory in 1994. It was the first democratic election in the country’s history – a triumph over apartheid, a peaceful transition to democracy. After his election he made peace with the Afrikaner leadership. He personally went to them, their wives and their children and greeted them.

The rainbow nation he created deemphasized racial and ethnic differences and focused on their synergy and unity. That is why South Africa captured the imagination of the world. And of course, that was the message of the 2009 movie, Invictus, with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman – depicting the newly elected president who initiates a unique venture to unite the apartheid-torn land: enlisting the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa – as a means of bringing blacks and whites together after decades of violence and mistrust.

Insistence on forgiveness over vengeance made him the symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination. People were constantly calling for retribution against the whites. But Mandela, along with Oliver Tambo, insisted that they would not fall into the ways of their oppressors.

Mandela served as president from 1994-1999.

Certainly there have been charges of corruption by the ANC; but at least in South Africa it is talked about where in Europe and America such scandals often remain hidden and  – when revealed – not mentioned except by late-night comedians.

 Since the end of apartheid the government has built millions of homes, brought electricity to millions of households and brought potable water to the country’s poor. The average income of black-led households has almost tripled from 2001 to 2011. The judiciary that was exclusively white two decades ago is now a black majority. A police force that had to be remade out of a deeply dominated population is now largely black. South Africa has achieved all this and more. Universities now have a majority of students of color and the country is producing extraordinary talent: its music scene, its theater scene, its movie industry, and much besides. The country is unrecognizable from the late apartheid days.

Nelson Mandela was also one of our great spiritual teachers. Here are two teachings which I have always found inspirational:


“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”


My friends, Mandela has taught us to take only a moment to treasure the “glorious vista”, and use that moment to inspire you to return to your responsibilities. And then for those of us, who may feel defeated by circumstance and momentary failure, he taught us:


“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela


  • Civil rights activist, teacher, freedom fighter, father of a nation, father, husband, and an inspiration to the world
  • He fought for democracy in South Africa
  • He fought against AIDS that was devastating the African continent
  • He showed us it is possible to create lasting change and stability regardless of the formidable consequences
  • He advocated for the promotion of education to the downtrodden, believing that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”


Nelson Mandela not only transformed a country, he has inspired us to change the world by recognizing that our burden and our responsibility as humans is not simply to help others cast off the chains of oppression, poverty, and racism; but once they are free, it is up to them to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. It is a cycle of caring and sharing that he promoted every day of his life.

Judaism teaches that the best way to pay tribute to those who have passed on is to do good deeds in their honor.

Let us live in accordance with the values he practiced and taught – values of human dignity, forgiveness, kindness, courage, tenacity, strength, honesty, unity, and peace. He embodied the foundational principles of all religions; but if we were to remember only three and make them a part of our being every day, let them be, Respect, Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

President Mandela’s inspiring moral legacy should have a profound impact on each and every one of us. In a world filled with disillusionment and despair, this man for the past quarter century has given birth to hope. May we carry on his legacy of unity and hope. Let us live this legacy as well as passing it on to future generations.