Dreams of Many Colors: Thoughts on Nelson Mandela and Joseph

12/06/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Nelson Mandela inspired people throughout the world like few others in history.  His passing provides a rare opportunity to mark the impact of a man who transcended all limits placed upon him and yet became a symbol for humility and grace. 

While it is hard not to lapse into hagiography in talking about Nelson Mandela, his greatest strength was not in being a saint but in being human.  By his own account  when he entered prison just before turning 42 he was headstrong and immature.  By the time he was released 27 years later he had learned how to overcome  anger, bitterness, and fear and to embrace instead the greater causes of justice, love, and, most incredibly, forgiveness.

The words that stand as the greatest testament to what Nelson Mandela was able to achieve in South Africa, however, are Truth and Reconciliation.   The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in the wake of Apartheid's fall in order to face the injustices of South Africa's racist system while laying the groundwork for a new productive future. 

The commission was not centered only on the grievances of the disenfranchised blacks, but also recognized the suffering whites both as a result of being part of the system and, in some cases, from violence perpetrated against them. In the words of the TRC, "The conflict during [Apartheid] resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses." 

Its one thing to insist on Truth, exposing the moral failings and crimes of the past even at the expense of causing resentment.  Or to turn to Reconciliation, seeking to move on and let the past be the past.  However to both face the truth and find reconciliation is a profound accomplishment.

While far from the only author of this success, it was Nelson Mandela whose personal example exemplified the spirit that made this dream possible.

It is fitting that as we mark this moment our community reads from the Torah the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph also had dreams, but could only see their fruition after he learned to shed his youthful immaturity for a deeper perspective.  Only after emerging from prison was he able to realize that his mission in the world was not to interpret his own dreams but to help fulfill the dreams of others. 

Joseph tells his brothers later in life that he was not the master but the humble servant of G*d. These words echo Mandela's famous declaration upon his liberation:  "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people."

Only through this humility can we see the world in many colors and help make possible the dreams of a rainbow nation.