Last week, the world lost a great man, Nelson Mandela. One of my favorite Mandela stories happened to a friend of mine in Cape Town. She was standing under her chupa and felt a slight tug on her wedding dress. She looked around to see what was going on. Nelson Mandela was straightening out her train! Greatness is often revealed in the details.
In this week’s parsha, Joseph dies. He is one of the most prominent figures in the Chumash. Mandela’s story is not dissimilar to Joseph’s. Joseph’s brothers hated him. Mandela grew up under the oppression of apartheid. Joseph landed up in prison, so did Mandela. Joseph was freed from prison and became the viceroy of Egypt. Mandela was freed from prison and became the president of South Africa. Joseph did not take revenge on his brothers. Instead, he drew them close and helped them as much as he could (he actually saved their lives in the years of famine). Mandela did not take revenge on his oppressors. Instead, he drew them close and worked together with them to make a peaceful revolution and a new South Africa.
There are some experiences we wish never to have, but if we have them and manage to survive them, they can be of tremendous benefit. I was once on an airplane that prepared for a crash landing. At the time, it was an awful experience, but when we managed a miraculously landing it became — and remains — one of the most defining moments in my life.
I found something absolutely fascinating written by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe from 1920 to 1950, describing the jail sentence he suffered in 1927 in Leningrad. It was the seventh time he had been jailed by the Russian authorities. It sheds a lot of light on how a person can go through so much torment and yet emerge compassionate:
“I will not deny that from time to time the seventh imprisonment brings me particular pleasure. Even now I set aside time to spend alone, to picture in my mind’s eye the sounds and words, the sights and the dreams that I heard, saw and dreamed in those days. In the course of a lifetime, Divine Providence engineers particular periods that sometimes change a man’s very nature. They develop his abilities and set him up at a particular height, so that he can gaze upon the ultimate purpose for which a man lives his life on the face of the earth. Above all, a man’s personality and abilities are most intensely escalated by a period rich in suffering, which is inflicted on account of his vigorous endeavors for an ideal. This is particularly so if he struggles and battles with his pursuers and persecutors for the sake of preserving and advancing his religious faith. Such a period, though fraught with affliction of the body and suffering of the spirit, is rich in powerful impressions. If imprisonment is involved, the resultant spiritual benefit is so great, for every hour and minute of torment gives rise to inestimable benefits: It makes a man so resolute that even a weakling is transformed into the most courageous of men.”
We would do well to learn from this principle without having to go through what these men went through.
One of my students commented recently that Judaism requires effort, work and often sacrifice. It does. But expecting Judaism to be an enjoyable recreation is going to land up in one of two things: either disappointment or the watering down of Judaism until nothing meaningful is left.
It’s not recreation, it’s the preservation and advancing of our values and beliefs. For those we must be prepared to sacrifice.
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.