Dreaming of Mandela

20130710-085640.jpg My introduction to Africa was as a college student on a study tour to South Africa in 2004. I did my best to understand the complexity of race, economic disparity and a devastating history of apartheid. Nearly a decade later, I still don't understand it. I continue to feel as uncomfortable in South Africa today as I did as a college student.

Roger Cohen provided a beautiful op-ed in the New York Times, reflecting ironically on the ease he had growing up as a Jew in South Africa, while blacks endured the crippling violence and oppression as victims of apartheid. While Cohen's family picnicked on Table Mountain, Nelson Mandela spent another day of his 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island (27 years total imprisonment). The juxtaposition of free and oppressed was real, and it was cruel.

We continue to rejoice that apartheid is no more, at least legally. South Africa is still broken today and separation continues to live on - just as it does in every place where there has been a history of violent oppression.

And yet, Nelson Mandela has unified a nation in a way that most people didn't believe possible. He is a hero, a man who transcended the underbelly of injustice with vision, patience and endurance. He made us believe that we can triumph over the depravity of others, and of ourselves, with love.

We need heroes to call us to our better selves. We need them to remind us that we can love better, that we must love better. I am not ready for a world without Mandela in it. I know none of us are.

"I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe."

- Roger Cohen