(This week in the Torah we read the portion of Vayigash, which features the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers. The confluence of this portion with the passing of Nelson Mandela inspired me to offer these words tonight at Shabbat evening services. Shabbat Shalom!)
Think about men held in prison on trumped-up charges. Think about these same men men who rose up and eventually seized power and ruled for the benefit of their nation.
During these weeks when we read in the Torah the story of Joseph and his sojourn in - first - an Egyptian jail and - then - in the Egyptian ruling class, the world experiences the death of Nelson Mandela, the powerful leader and symbol of the anti-Apartheid movement and South Africa's first black president. There are only a few similarities between these two transformational leaders, yet each one of them rose to prominence and positions of national leadership despite the once-slim chances that this could ever happen.
For the accomplishments and legacies of these two embodiments of liberation remind us of the achievement and the capacity of the human spirit!
For Joseph, he wallowed in his prison cell for two years, dependent upon the quite forgetful butler to send his request for clemency up the chain of command. The nation had essentially forgotten this accused rapist and undocumented immigrant. Yet through all the time that he was imprisoned, he remembered the God to whom he was connected and indebted. He may have lost hope of being released, but he did not give up his faith. And he was rewarded for this faith.
For Mandela, his 27 years under detention came after a near escape of the death penalty for treason against his native land. The words he spoke before the beginning of his confinement display the courage and strength of his conviction of the evil of apartheid. He took full responsibility for his actions precisely because of the rightness of his cause. Those who take responsibility for their actions – and are willing to pay the price for their disobedience – usually are the leaders whom we follow.
Joseph came to power by the command of the Pharaoh, who was grateful for the economic vision Joseph offered, which was a solution to Egypt's anticipated agricultural woes. It is improbable that any modern day leader would offer the position of 'second in command' to a virtual unknown who had offered some untested advice. But in the context of the bible, miracles, reliance on the gods, and improbable situations produce momentous events.
During Nelson Mandela's prison term, he and his liberation movement were not forgotten by the world. During those 27 years, the anti-Apartheid movement grew only stronger as the profile of the civil rights movement rose in this land and elsewhere. Economic sanctions against the South African government began to take effect. And world-wide protests against apartheid kept the dream of a future of equality at the forefront of our vision. The persistence and rightness of that dream allowed us to sing 'We Shall Overcome' in bright and strong tones.
And both Joseph and Nelson Mandela engaged in acts of reconciliation, bringing families and nations together for the sake of peace.
This week we read in the Torah of the peace made between Joseph and his brothers. A boy once betrayed and sold into slavery and who now holds authority over his brothers, finds every possible pathway toward resolving their relationship.
And Nelson Mandela, working from a position of strength and authority, permitted a process of national reconciliation to take place, thereby enabling a country long torn by racial hatred to find new potential for economic, social and political growth.
The future of the Israelite nation was hardly cemented by its eventual acceptance in Egypt. We know that their sojourn there was temporary, and that many changes took place in the years that followed.
In South Africa, the changes are still happening, the national reconciliation process continues, and people still learn how to live in a majority-minority nation.
I think the fates of both nations are yet to be determined, and I hope I can live to see the fulfillment of miraculous visions and dreams for both these historically diverse and important peoples.