MANDELA AND JEWISH WISDOM

Nelson Mandela’s funeral is several weeks behind us. As it happens, now is a good time to consider how Mandela’s philosophy of looking forward finds antecedents in the Talmud and the Book of Proverbs.

Mandela’s greatness was in thinking that while great wrongs had been done to black South Africans, hatred and recrimination serve no good purpose. The new South African society must look to the future without calls for revenge masquerading as justice.

A man who spends 27 years in prison and rejects hatred of his jailers is worth listening to. I hope that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have reflected on this. The ancients certainly did.

This week’s Torah portion Be-Shallach (Sent Out), Exodus 13:17–17:16, presents Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. After releasing the Israelites from bondage following the ten plagues, he and his army chase the Israelites into the Reed Sea (Red Sea is an improper translation of Yam Suf). The sea splits. The Israelites pass through. The pursuing Egyptians drown.

Should Jews—should anyone—treasure revenge? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) relates: “In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would ye utter song before me!”

Proverbs 24:17–18 offers related instruction: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; / If he trips let your heart not rejoice, / Lest the Lord see it and be displeased, / And avert His wrath from him.”

Yes, attacks should be repulsed and crimes punished. But we must take a broader view regarding those who offend and those who are offended. God may have found it necessary to slay the Egyptians and assist the Israelites to win many military victories, but this does not make those deeds pleasing. Delighting in destruction pushes us across the boundary between self-defense and cruelty. All humans are God’s handiwork.

Do we get that? And can it lead to peace in 2014? Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry still believes that a framework for a two-state agreement can be reached by April. I’m skeptical, but I hope to be proven wrong. And I could be if Palestinians and Israelis emulate Mandela.

Jodi Rudoren wrote in The New York Times (1-2-14) regarding Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, “The gulf between the two sides on the issue highlights a broader question critical to the outcome of the talks: whether a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.”

I’m not addressing the issue of a Jewish state here. De facto, that’s what Israel is. But making room for others’ histories—on both sides—can bring peace closer.

The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I add a corollary: Those who dwell solely on the past also are condemned to repeat it.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of my new novel, The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. And read my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.

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3 Comments


  1. Carolyn Perlstein
    Jan 11, 2014

    This blog entry is very thought provoking. Ah, if only the wisdom of the sages prevailed.


  2. Martin Weiner
    Jan 11, 2014

    I very much appreciate this blog on Mandela and revenge. the Midrash about the angels rejoicing over the Egyptians has always touched me. You apply it very appropriately to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    Shabbat Shalom
    Marty Weiner


    • David
      Jan 12, 2014

      Thanks, Marty. Whether either the current Israeli or Palestinian Authority administrations have the capacity to look forward remains to be seen. I’d love to know what Secretary of State Kerry knows—or thinks he knows—about this.

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