Would you consider Nelson Mandela you hero? One of your heroes? Thousands of South Africans and many people around the world certainly do.
Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Order of Merit, the US gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the UN designated 18th July each year as "Mandela Day". Here, they call him "father of the nation". Newsweek once described him as the South African "Washington and Lincoln all rolled into one".
Today, in SA, was one big birthday
celebration. Kids around the country belted out "Happy birthday
Madiba", businesses unfurled flags alongside their office buildings and
thousands dedicated 67 minutes of their day to society.
All in honour of Nelson Mandela- hero of "the Struggle" for democracy in South Africa.
But, there's a side to Nelson Mandela's
heroism that doesn't grab headlines, and yet is probably the most valuable
dimension for us to learn from.
Standing up against Apartheid took guts.
Forgiving those who had oppressed him took heroism. In Madiba's own
words, "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."
King Solomon taught: "A patient man is superior to a hero,
and one who controls his impulses is more powerful than one who conquers a
It's unlikely that any of us will lead a revolutionary movement.
Most of us will never become global icons. But, each of us is meant to be a
hero. Every day, we are given the chance to dump resentment, judgement and
bitterness and become conciliatory individuals. 67 minutes of social responsibility is great, but switching from kvetching and complaining to
optimism, working together and building great things is heroic.
Jews have bartered in North Africa, made millions in the USA, counseled royalty across Europe and taught ethics from Cuba to Katmandu. Small wonder they call us the "wandering Jews". Yet, the truth is, we never volunteered for the job. We were forced from our homes in Jerusalem- first by the Babylonians, later by the Romans and later still we were shafted from country after country for pretty much our nation's whole history.
And, despite all that, I'd argue that we're not wandering Jews. Traveling Jews, perhaps. The most appropriate term is certainly journeying Jews. Semantics, you'll say, but there's a profound difference between "wanderers" and "journeyers", and Jews fit squarely into the latter category.
A wanderer is a nomad; someone who mills about without following a definite route and who has no purpose per se to their travels. Joburg's roads are full of wanderers: The fellow who walks aimless miles every day, swinging a keychain as he goes, or the homeless man who circles the streets, never settling on a good panhandling spot. We have upscale wanderers who meander through malls, idling and browsing the hours away. Nowadays, we even have techno-wanderers who spend their days trawling the Web for a piece of inspiration or, more likely, entertainment.
Nope, we Jews are not aimless wanderers, and have never been. In fact, the term wandering Jew is a Christian invention- and a disparaging one at that.
Jews arrive in unchartered territory and immediately look for opportunities. We often feel like wanderers, because our Supernal Navigator plots our movements without forewarning or explanation. But, once we're in our new surroundings, we switch to being journeyers - people on a mission.
At this is time of year, Jews recall all those tragedies that originally catapulted us from the comfort of our homeland into hundreds of incessant unmapped globetrottings. The Talmud says that G-d dispersed us throughout the world as an act of kindness. It also says that our continental shifts are designed to attract "converts". We're not into proselytizing, so talking of "converts" who we're meant to "attract" is actually code for the real mission behind our nation's many journeys.
Our ancestors were instructed to wrest Canaan from its amoral inhabitants and transform the place into the Holyland. Likewise, we're on a journey through the world to shift societies from selfishness and strife to goodness and awareness of G-d.
G-d choreographs where we go and how long we stay there. Read Jewish history and you'll detect a recurring theme: 1) Jews arrive in a place 2) The people learn a thing or two about life, morality, business, family or G-d from the Jews 3) The locals attack or expel the Jews 4) The local population is overrun by foreign forces who leave little more than souveniers of the mighty power that once lived there.
Needless to say, we not only teach, but also learn something from each population we visit- something we can use to better teach the world about G-d. That is our journey. To be Jewish is not to be a spectator, but a change-agent for the world around us.
When a Jew wanders into town, the town's journey of transformation has just begun.