Friday, December 6, 2013


I write this today with a sadness.  The world has lost a great man, Nelson Mandela.  Mandela is a towering figure in the history of our world.  A fighter, a prisoner and later a man who struggled, even with his own people, to secure some kind of reconciliation.  Mandela's efforts changed the way the people of the world saw how an oppressed people might find a way to overcome their oppression and not focus solely on revenge.  This couldn't connect more to my thoughts of this week's parsha.

Joseph is a great man in Egypt and we enter the story in the middle this week.  Joseph's brothers, not recognizing him, have come to Egypt for food.  Joseph plays with them, gets them to bring Benjamin, makes it look like he is a thief and plans to imprison him but in the end relents and reveals who he is and that God had sent him to pave the way for his family to settle in Egypt during this terrible famine.  He longs to see Jacob and throughout the rest of Joseph's life we find he takes no revenge on the brothers that caused him so much pain.   The family reconciles and while the brothers never fully trust Joseph, he shows them he cares about family.

I can't fully liken Joseph to Mandela.  But there is something to be said for both of these men that can teach us.  In both cases they were treated poorly, in both cases they were freed from bondage and rose to positions of power, and in both cases they found a way to set aside revenge and focus on building new bonds.

Revenge is easy and even the fantasy of revenge gives us some great feelings.  I once found myself cut off in traffic causing me almost to go off the road.  About 5 minutes later the car that cut me off was in a ditch, back end in the air and front end smashed.  I waved to the guy as I rolled passed him.  It felt good but also it felt horrible.  I felt small.  In the case of Joseph and Mandela both could have exact much worse revenge.  Joseph could have easily kept his secret and turned his brothers into slaves far from where he lived.  He could have had them executed, tortured or simply locked them up forever.  He chose not to, he chose to listen to the voice that healed rather than split the group.  Mandela too could have led a uprising of Black South Africans who were ready for violent revenge.  Some occurred after the fall of Apartheid, but he struggled to make sure that he didn't become the people he fought his whole life not to be.  He didn't want to leave a legacy of pain in his wake.  I wonder if he read the Genesis narrative to guide him in this.

Reconciliation is harder too when others shared your pain.  For Joseph he was a single individual, injured by his brothers.  He simply saw it as his role in the grand scheme of things.  But Mandela was one of many who were imprisoned, tortured and some killed.  As an Anti-Apartheid activist in the mid-80s I met several.  Some seemed to struggle with the ideas of non-violence, some saw hope in the future and yet others were ready to create a revolutionary army to kill and crush all whites in South Africa.  The hate I saw in their eyes was clear and I remember being worried about the end of Apartheid and the potential of blood baths.

I have always been struck by people wronged who can find a way to forgive those who have hurt them and move forward together with a new view of life.  Joseph does this in the Torah in a way that can be a lesson for all of us.  Mandela did it in our life time in a way that shows peaceful co-existence is possible between oppressor and oppressed after the oppression stops.  The hope of a world of peace for all is there if we remember that so often there is a choice when we feel wronged.  A choice to find a way to hit back or to help the other person become a better person and end the initial beatings.  It isn't easy, but easy lives are for pampered pets and grass on the side of a hill.  We live through the difficult because it makes the colors of the world brighter.

If you are memorializing Mandela this week, think of how he overcame the searing hate that must have grown in him while in prison and how you in a small way can give up some grudge you carry.  Think of Joseph holding in his hand the power to crush the siblings who caused so much hardship and chose to hug them instead.  That is what life is really about, finding a way to make the next moment better than the last, not just for us but for everyone.

We use to sing "Free Nelson Mandela" , today he is free of a huge burden, and it is up to us to carry it now.  We have the Torah as our guide of where to take it and we have the hope of  the next moment.
Shabbat Shalom.

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