By Dr. Susie Tanchel
I am feeling a deep sense of loss in response to the news of the death of Nelson Mandela. I have many memories of standing on my grandmother’s balcony after a delicious Shabbat dinner and looking out at Robben Island. It was an oddly serene sight. From a distance it was a beautiful island with some trees and seals frolicking in a glorious ocean. But I knew even from a young age there were people wrongly imprisoned there. The juxtaposition was confusing to me even from a young age.
As I grew older I learned more of the cruelty and brutality that was being perpetrated on Robben Island and all over my country. Indeed some of the specifics only came out many years later, as Mandela forced us all to bear witness to the truth of what had happened. At the same time, he miraculously understood that the future of South Africa depended on us all moving beyond our painful past. We needed to reconcile with one another to build a new country, a country in which we could all be free.
We talk to our kids so often here at JCDS about being an upstander and doing what is right. We talk to them about how one person can make a difference. President Mandela is the quintessential upstander. He saved the country of my youth. South Africa could have so easily gone the way of my mother’s homeland, Zimbabwe. It didn’t because of one man. Mandela had every reason to live a life filled with deep resentment, bitterness and hate. Instead he was filled with forgiveness, love and dreams of peace. He led South African with courage, grace and humility.
Mandela was committed to giving his children, and our children, a better world. He most obviously transformed the lives of black South Africans in every way imaginable. I believe he also changed the lives of white South Africans, for as I explained to many JCDS classes today, in a system of oppression, the oppressors’ souls are deeply damaged by the very discrimination they are inflicting on others. I am personally grateful that a new generation of white South Africans will never experience the guilt and shame I grew up with. This experience continues to motivate me to help each child develop a moral compass and a strong character with the hopes that each will contribute to a more just world.
Many years later, when I finally had the opportunity to go onto the island I had so often seen from my grandmother’s balcony, I looked in horror at Mandela’s tiny cell. I marveled at the fact that though the guards robbed Mandela of so much of life, they did not crush his spirit or his dreams. Jewish lore says the world was created for 36 (lamed-vav) deeply righteous people. For me Nelson Mandela is a lamed-vavnik; he is one of those 36 people. May Mandela’s memory spur us to continue to stand up for what is right, to work for a more just world, and to do acts – small and large – of tikkun olam.