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Nelson Mandela’s Work

Nelson Mandela Photo: lasanta.com.ec Flickr

Last Thursday the world lost Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Through his own unimaginable personal sacrifice and almost superhuman determination and political acumen, he brought about peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled land. In so doing, he inspired us all with hope in the potential of human beings to overcome the racism that poisons us and the hatred that divides us.

The Psalmist teaches: “The days of our years are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength, fourscore years.” Threescore and ten – 70 years. But the first 70 years of Mr. Mandela’s life were marked by violence and tyranny, resistance and imprisonment. In the traditional view, that would have been his entire life. But when he emerged from the darkness into the light, standing side by side with the very people who once had been his enemies, he began a new life, and went on to bless this world for almost FIVE score years. It was amazing to behold.

No, we can’t all be Mandelas. One is more than any epoch can probably expect. But we can all learn from him, and draw inspiration from his life and work. We can make an effort to use our intelligence and our strength, and our human sensitivity, to join with others in promoting human progress and a peaceful life on this earth. Each of us has to find some area in which we are most compelled to make our personal contribution. But the work is what counts – our work. We learn from the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each of us is obligated to make some personal contribution to repair the world. Each of us is personally responsible. That is really the most authentic way to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, and all the other heroes and heroines who have worked and fought to make the world a better place.

This week we will complete our reading of the Book of Genesis. The rivalries and enmity that have marked the generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs have been put to rest. After 20 years of separation and estrangement, Jacob and his children are together as one family. At least for now, the spirit of peace and reconciliation has won the day. As we close the Book of Genesis, we proclaim in the words of our tradition, חזק חזק ונתחזק Chazak, chazak, venitchazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

As for Nelson Mandela we say, זכר צדיק לברכה – Zecher Tzaddik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing – and may we keep alive the light he brought into the world.