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The Courage to Reconcile – A Sermon for Vayigash 5774 (A Tribute to Nelson Mandela)

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

He is a symbol of hope. Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

It may not be who you think. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his family. After being sold into slavery, after sitting in prison, after using his own skills to ultimately become second in command over all Egypt, Joseph meets up again with the brothers who wronged him so long ago. But this time, he is the one in charge.

We know the story. He plays some mind games with them; accuses Benjamin of stealing a royal goblet. But ultimately, he reveals himself tearfully to them in a scene that is unlike anything else in the Torah.

Joseph is an extraordinary character – not only for his brilliance, for his powers of persuasion, but also for his ability to grow and change and accept others. This is the same Joseph who we met 2 weeks ago as an arrogant shepherd boy. The same Joseph who lorded over his brothers, and tattled on them, and must have hated them after what they did to him. And he finds it in himself to forgive them, for the sake of his family and his future.

And even more extraordinary, he is not the only one that does that. The parashah begins not with Joseph, but with his brother Judah.  It says וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה – Judah approached Joseph (who he didn’t know was Joseph) to plead for his brother Benjamin. He says:

“Please, my lord…. ‘The boy [Benjamin] cannot leave his father. One [of his sons] is gone from [him]… when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die….Therefore, please let [me] remain as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Genesis 44:18-34).

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, writes that “Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later is not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave.” (Quoted from chabad.org.)

So the reunion of Jacob’s family is made possible because both Joseph and Judah have grown. Both Joseph and Judah are willing to compromise, to put aside anger and personal hurt in order to achieve reconciliation.

It’s a rare combination: the vision to see a better world; the stubborn refusal to let go of dreams and hopes for a better life; and the humility, the pragmatic willingness to work with others to see those dreams to fruition. It’s a rare combination that we see perhaps only once in a generation: Joseph; Abraham Lincoln; Winston Churchill; Mahatma Ghandi; Nelson Mandela.

Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

The Globe and Mail wrote yesterday morning that “It is hard to imagine that anyone alive today would be more widely mourned than Nelson Mandela.”

He is mourned, of course, for the role he played in transforming South Africa.

And he is mourned for the enormous skill with which he manoeuvred not only a transition in government, not only an implementing of rights and freedoms for all citizens, but also a reconciliation between neighbours who had previously seen themselves as enemies.

A member of our congregation told me that growing up white in South Africa, “you weren’t always cognizant of the struggle of the other.” It was Mandela who brought that struggle to the fore, because he was willing to be imprisoned to change it, and because he was so committed to a nonviolent, that non-polarizing transition – both during the years of struggle and once he was actually in power. Mandela was once asked about prosecuting the power brokers of the apartheid regime, and he replied, “Prosecution? I’m not interested in prosecution. I’m interested in building a nation.”

This is a theme of his career and of his life. Just as Joseph had to leave behind his anger, his resentment toward his brothers in order to build a future, so did Nelson Mandela teach us, in his own words, “that resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

He spoke often about the choice to abandon anger and work for reconciliation. He said famously:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

And, we might add to that statement, South Africa might still be imprisoned by hatred, racism, and divisiveness.

Most of us never have to fight against oppression. Most of us never go to jail for 27 years for standing up for our own rights and freedoms. But we can learn from someone who did that there is little to be gained by harbouring old grudges and seeking revenge for old wrongs; and there much to be gained by working together – even with those that we don’t agree with. That’s what we hope for Israel and the Palestinians. It is what we hope for ourselves and our own families. It’s what we can learn from Joseph and Judah and from Nelson Mandela, zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.

Amen.