Public Figure, Moral Spokesman
Leaders of ninety nations gathered in a Johannesburg stadium last week to pay their final respects to Nelson Mandela. And thousands of South Africans braved a heavy downpour to attend the memorial service. Millions more around the globe followed the proceedings on television.
The first speaker at this august gathering was a familiar figure to Mishpacha readers: Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa. As the television cameras panned the stadium during his speech, those watching at home saw rows upon rows of Mandela family members and senior government officials listening with rapt attention to the young chief rabbi.
Rabbi Goldstein found the perfect analogy in the Torah for the story of Mandela's extraordinary life: the story of Yosef HaTzaddik. Just as Yosef was separated from his father for twenty-two years, many of them spent in prison, so Mandela served twenty-seven years of a life sentence, not knowing if he would ever be freed. Just as Yosef "emerged from the pit to become a leader and head of government of a mighty nation," so Mandela emerged from prison to become the first president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Yosef did not use his newly conferred power to exact revenge upon those who had wronged him. He did not permit himself to become twisted and deformed by hatred. Instead he reconciled to his brothers and accepted them in love: "'Fear not – for am I in the place of G-d? Although you intended me harm, G-d redirected it for good: in order to accomplish – as is clear this day – so that a vast people should be kept alive. So now, fear not – I will sustain you and your loved ones.' And so he comforted them and spoke to their heart" (Bereishis 50:19-21).
In a similar fashion, intoned the Chief Rabbi, "Nelson Mandela spoke to our hearts. He brought us comfort. And through his mighty power of forgiveness he sustained us, and liberated our country from the pit of prejudice and injustice, unleashing the awesome generosity of spirit of millions of South Africans."
In a radio address delivered shortly after Mandela's passing, Rabbi Goldstein shared a small vignette illustrating that generosity of spirit. After a memorial service for Yitzchak Rabin in Johannesburg's Oxford Synagogue, in October 1995, Mandela was walking down the center aisle when a young boy of about ten wearing a large black hat pushed his way through the crowd and thrust out his hand to the President. Mandela grasped his hand, and there ensued the following exchange:
"Tell me, young man, what is your name? And which school do you attend?"
"Torah Academy," replied the boy with great pride, as he mentioned the local Chabad school.
"Very good," said the President, pretending that he was familiar with Torah Academy. "Tell me, do you study hard?"
The boy's face shone. "Oh sir, I study really hard – morning, afternoon and evening."
"That's fine," said the President encouragingly. "I want you to know that if you continue studying really hard, one day you may become the President of South Africa."
The boy looked puzzled. "What – me? Become President?" he said peering forth from underneath his large black hat. "I can't become President; I am not black."
The President looked down at him with great seriousness and told him, "Young man, this is a democracy."
Mandela was serious about that. At the trial at which he was sentenced to life imprisonment, he told the court of the apartheid regime. "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 which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
SOUTH AFRICA'S 75,000 Jews comprise less than .14% of the country's total population of 53,000,000, and less than 1.5% of the white population. That makes it all the more remarkable that the Chief Rabbi was chosen to deliver the first eulogy by a clergyman. Yet it was no accident.
There may be no country in the world where Jewish values have such a prominent place as in the majority black nation on the southern tip of the African continent. Chief Rabbi Goldstein, the first native born chief rabbi, was the moving force and principal draftsman behind the South African Bill of Responsibilities, which is part of the curriculum in all South African schools. The focus on responsibilities, not just rights, is perhaps unique among world democracies.
The idea for such a Bill of Responsibilities is one that was first broached by Goldstein in a series of email exchanges in his student days with Dumani Mandela, the son of Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter Dr. Makaziwe Mandela. Those exchanges were subsequently published as African Soul Talk. That book arose out the authors' shared perception that values and morals can bind people in a common vision for a better future, while politics are more likely to divide them.
Over the years, Rabbi Goldstein has remained in contact with Makaziwe Mandela, and especially during the last months of Nelson Mandela's life he offered her regular support and guidance.
Not since Margaret Thatcher pronounced British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits "my rabbi," as an expression of her deep admiration of him and contempt for the contemporary Anglican Church, has a Jewish rabbi been such a prominent public figure and moral spokesman. A popular quip at the time had it that Lord Jakovovits was, in Lady Thatcher's view, the "one prelate whose preaching does not give G-d a bad name."
I SUSPECT THAT it is obvious to regular readers of Mishpacha that my own admiration for Chief Rabbi Goldstein is nearly boundless. I have written frequently of his public achievements – e.g., the Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, the Community Active Protection initiative, which caused crime rates in Jewish neighborhoods to plummet, Generation Sinai.
But beyond my respect and admiration, which is almost universally shared, there is also deep affection. Rabbi Goldstein is one of those people who causes one to feel even better about being a Torah Jew. His confidence in the power of Torah to transform not only each individual life but society in general is very great. His vision of Torah is positive and not defensive, confident and not afraid. It is that of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch.
Jerusalem Post columnist Evelyn Gordon picked up on that quality this past week when she quoted Rabbi Goldstein's explanation of why Chanukah primarily celebrates the miracle of the oil and not the miraculous military victories: "Our emphasis must always be not on what we are against but on what we are for – not merely on defeating our enemies, necessary though that obviously is, but on using that victory 'to light the flames of Torah values,' as symbolized by the menorah."
I FIRST MET Rabbi Goldstein almost ten years ago when he was a thirty-two year old newly appointed chief rabbi. No one had yet heard of him outside the borders of South Africa, and he was hardly a household name even there. Today, he is an international figure. The current Jewish Action features an interview with him, he writes regularly in the Jerusalem Post, and is a familiar figure in all South African media. The projects he has undertaken are being emulated around the globe.
Yet I have not detected the slightest change in him over those ten years. Nothing has gone to his head. The boyish enthusiasm remains the same. His speech is of projects yet to be done -- never of himself. Each successful undertaking has only whetted his appetite to try new things. South Africa has become the leading laboratory for every large-scale Jewish project. But again, it is the glory of Torah that pushes him, not the love of the limelight.
When we first met, he asked for advice. And he still eagerly solicits advice from anyone whom he thinks can help him spread Torah further.
Genuine humility is impossible to fake over any length of time. And where it is found no quality attracts so strongly. The Chief Rabbi's goodness of spirit, together with his chochma, have joined to make him a widely respected figure in general South African society, as well as within the Jewish community. A bit of a contemporary Yosef himself.
Trust is Fragile
"If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem." Abraham Lincoln was right. And that is why I do not expect President Obama's approval ratings to rebound greatly during the rest of his presidency.
Presidential approval ratings are a function of many factors, and can fluctuate greatly over the course of four years, in accord with events of the day. But once the public comes to doubt not just the wisdom of particular policies but the fundamental honesty of the officeholder he or she is sunk. As the impact of Obamacare becomes ever clearer to most voters – loss of existing insurance plans, higher premiums, higher deductibles and co-pays, restricted choice of hospitals and doctors – the conclusion that they were sold a series of whoppers becomes inescapable.
The impact on foreign nations of the ignored presidential red line over Syrian chemical weapons is pretty much the same. President Obama may be telling the truth now when he says that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, he may never again partake of the slightest fib. But how can any nation henceforth rely on presidential promises, red lines, affirmations that "I don't bluff"?
The lesson here is not just one for politicians. It applies to each of us in our marriages and every other important relationship in our lives. It's easy to lose trust, but very hard to regain it once lost.