In June this year, when Nelson Mandela was critically ill, my daughter and son-in-law, Chana and Lincoln, named their second child, Micah Mandela Ritter. I am reminded today of how moved I was my grandson’s covenant ceremony when they announced his name. On Yom Kippur this year, in honor of Mandela I gave a sermon in part addressed to my grandson, Micah Mandela, on what we could learn from the great man whose name he bears about justice and moral vision, compassion and forgiveness, and about hope, community and social transformation.
On this sad day of his passing, I offer these words in memory of a great man who so profoundly changed our lives and inspired us.
Yom Kippur sermon 5774
I grew up in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My family’s home was in Sea Point, a suburb that lies between the mountain and the ocean. Our home, number 14 Queens Road, was just a few houses from the ocean. If you looked up the road you could see the mountain; in the other direction, the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounded us was nothing less than spectacular: miles of oceanfront in both directions, lush vegetation, gorgeous flowers and the mountain in the background. In Habonim, my Zionist youth group, we sang, “We come from Cape Town, land of sea and mountain!” Yes, we lived in a spectacularly, beautiful place, “a land of sea and mountain” and much more.
Our family loved to go for walks on the beachfront. We would pass swimming pools, restaurants, playgrounds-all restricted to whites. The only people of color allowed to live in our neighborhood were domestic servants who lived in separate servants quarters. Blacks who worked in Sea Point lived in townships far from the city; they came in during the day to work and had to carry a pass book confirming that they had a job in our area.
On clear days, we could see an island in the distance: Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many of his African National Congress comrades were imprisoned for decades. The gulf between our comfortable and glorious suburb and the prison island we could see with our own eyes was enormous. It seemed unbridgeable. That tragic gap reflected the gulf between the reality of most white South Africans and that of majority of the people who lived in South Africa.
At that time it was illegal to quote Mandela or to print a photograph of him. Merely mentioning his name could make one the subject of suspicion. White South Africa and the Western world, including the United States, considered him persona non grata. He was a “communist” and a “terrorist.” The United States never took Mandela off the terrorist list till 2008 and kept the A.NC. on the list but made it possible for the status to be waived at times.
It was clear that if there were to be peace in our country it would involve freeing Mandela from prison, legalizing the A.N.C., and entering into negotiations. When I was growing up this seemed beyond any possibility. We all feared that our country was on the road to a massive and bloody civil war.
In June, when Chana and Lincoln, my daughter and son-in-law, announced at the naming/covenant ceremony that the name of their second child would be Micah Mandela Ritter, I was deeply moved. I never imagined that I would be blessed with a grandchild named Mandela. I feel so blessed to be the zeyde (grandfather) of a child who carries the name of a moral hero of our time, a man who has been central to my own life and has inspired me in so many ways.
Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child. But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice. I believe that my grandson and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela. And so tonight I want to share three of the many lessons I learned from this extraordinary man:
first, about justice and moral vision;
second, about compassion and forgiveness;
and third, about hope, community and social change.
These lessons are directly relevant to us this day as we reflect on our lives, our own moral vision and issues of forgiveness and change. Many of us are the beneficiaries of economic and racial privilege and live in a country with a history not so different from South Africa.
Lesson #1: A moral vision of justice
The Torah commands us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” The prophets of our tradition call us to justice. “Let justice well up like water,” says Amos. “You know what God has commanded you,” says Micah, “to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.” The prophetic tradition which is the core of Reform Judaism and much of liberal Judaism puts justice at the center of our religious vision.
Nelson Mandela, although he is not religious, is in the line of the prophetic tradition. His life was devoted to justice and guided by a clear moral vision of a democratic country, a non-racist South Africa, where all people would enjoy equality, dignity and justice. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Mandela was convicted along with 10 of his comrades, five of whom were Jewish, in the Rivonia Trial, which ended with Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.
In a moving statement at the trial he articulated this moral vision. First, he described the injustices Africans suffered and what they deserve.
“Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes.
African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. And then he articulated the most important demand.
“Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.
“This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. 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 that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela’s vision of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities” was not only Mandela’s personal vision; it was the vision of a broad movement that was articulated in the Freedom Charter. In 1955 the African National Congress sent 50,000 volunteers out into the countryside to ask people what freedoms they wanted. Based on this, they drafted the Freedom Charter, which was then adopted by the multiracial South African Congress Alliance.
The Charter began:
“We the People of South Africa declare for our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The document includes demands for basic human rights (many of which are still not part of the moral vision of the United States): a forty-hour week, equal pay for equal work, a national minimum wage, free compulsory universal and equal education for all children, universal health care.
The document is so inspiring. Most of it, except for the clauses that deal with nationalizing industry or redistributing land, was incorporated into South Africa’s extraordinary constitution in 1996.
Mandela’s vision was not based in any religious tradition, but it is consonant with the central core values of all religion as we understand it: that each and every human being is a child of God entitled to dignity, equality and justice.
Mandela pursued this moral vision relentlessly and at enormous personal cost. When he was offered a deal that would free him but would not guarantee voting rights, he chose to remain in prison and did not emerge until that most basic demand was met.
Mandela’s dedicated commitment to justice was integrated with a profound compassion for all people, even his enemies. This is evident in his unrelenting commitment to a non-racial democracy but also in his greatness of spirit and the forgiveness with which he approached his white oppressors. This is best exemplified in two stories about his relationships to those his enemies and those who supported him.
Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness
In his inauguration address as president of the new South Africa, Mandela urged South Africans to forgive one another and to move beyond the hatred of the past. He declared:
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.”
He called on South Africans to work toward a country in which “all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of the inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
On that inauguration day, one of the guests of honor who received a personal invitation from the new president was a man by the name of James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers on Robben Island. Gregory worked there for nine years, from 1967 till 1976. When he was transferred to Cape Town, he continued to censor the letters of inmates on the island. Later he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and when Mandela and four other A.N.C. leaders were transferred there, Gregory was assigned to Mandela.
Gregory talks about his extraordinary relationship with Mr. Mandela during this period of time.
“When he was alone I used to go and sit with him in his cell for hours at a time. We spoke about everything—his family, my family. But never politics and never trying to convince me of his views.”
‘He always called me Mr Gregory and I addressed him as Nelson. When visitors came I would address him as Mr Mandela. After he was released he phoned me here at home and I said, ‘Hello, Mr Mandela,’ and he said, ‘Where does this mister suddenly come from? You call me Nelson as you always did.’ He now calls me James.”
When Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1993 James Gregory received a white card to ‘W/O Gregory’. In neat, rounded handwriting, it said: “The wonderful hours we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.”
In explaining the reason for the invitation to Gregory and two other former prison wardens Mandela said, “I invited them to come because I wanted them to share in the joys that have emanated around this day. Because in a way they have also contributed.”
What extraordinary forgiveness! To forgive those who have served as your jailers. What a powerful story for this day of forgiveness when each of us is called to ask for and grant forgiveness.
Can we forgive those who have hurt us? Will we?
Alan Brigish, a friend of mine who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and who also grew up in South Africa, tells another extraordinary story about Mandela. His father, Harry Brigish, gave Mandela a job as a law clerk in 1947 .
In 1999, Mandela’s final year as president, Alan took his dad to the doctor who told him that the President had asked him about his father and wanted to see him. Alan immediately called Mandela’s and left a message that he was Harry Brigish’s son and that he had been told the president wanted to see him. He wanted to let him know that Harry would love to see him.
A day later, six cars arrived at the apartment block and Mandela came over for a cup of tea. Alan’s mom asked the president what he was going to do now that his term of office was over. “I am going to be doing much the same as what I am doing now. I am going to find the people who helped me and meet with them to thank them personally and I am going to find the people who hurt me and meet with them and forgive them face to face.” What compassion! What humility! What menshlichkeit!
Do we have the same capacity to thank those who have loved and helped us and to forgive those who have hurt us?
Will we do so?
Lesson # 3. Hope and Change
Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to imagine any future other than a massive civil and racial war in which thousands of people would be killed. And yet the determined resistance of millions of South Africans and people around the world made possible what seemed impossible. The apartheid government, facing mounting pressure from the resistance inside the country and from those around the world engaged in boycott, sanctions and divestment, decided to free Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance and to negotiate with them. The relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa was nothing short of miraculous and it is a source of great hope for all who seek social change. Social change takes a long time and demands huge devotion, courage and many sacrifices, but it is possible. Mandela and the movement he led always held to their moral vision and their belief that change could and would happen.
What we can learn is that change is possible when people join together in movements to make change. There is an extraordinary seven-part documentary made by Connie Fields, Have you heard from Johannesburg, that describes how actions in the country and around the world engaged in boycott, divestment and sanctions against South Africa made that happen.
In July, my sister Yda, a fabric artist who lives in Johannesburg, gave me a shirt she had designed with a quote from Mandela. It reads: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
Blessing for Micah Mandela
And so, my dear Micah Mandela: the man after whom you are named is a winner, a dreamer who never gave up. I hope carrying his name brings you blessings in your life: the blessing of living your life according to a moral vision of justice, your heart filled with compassion for all people, always offering forgiveness. A life of hope, that you always know deep in your heart that people joining together can make a difference in the world. I hope you find your particular way of joining with others to make our world a more just and decent place, and the blessing of honoring the prophetic voices of your Jewish legacy, your own prophetic voice and the prophetic voices in your world. Always remember the Jewish prophetic legacy that you have received as a gift. Remember what the prophet Micah taught us all. It is not complicated.
“You know what God desires of you
Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.”
This is my blessing to you and to all your buddies, the next generation who will inherit this world.
And so my dear friends, this is my blessing to you as well. May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace-loving United States and a just and peaceful world. May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us. May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”
As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.
Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.
And let us add: May God bless us all.
May we all be sealed for a sweet, joyous and healthy new year.
Shana Tova tikateyvu v’teychateymu
And today I add, his memory will always be a blessing to us. May his soul be bound in the bond of life and may he rest in peace.