Many knew him as Nelson, Mandela or Madiba. But he was also known as Rohliahlala, Tata, Khulu and Dalibhunga. Each name conveyed something different about the man, Nelson Mandela, first black President of South Africa and a legendary leader who led his country out of decades of apartheid into freedom.
So what’s in a name? In all traditions and faiths, our names play a key role, impacting on our identity and self-image. According to the Jewish tradition, the name we are given by our parents is chosen by G-d. The name we receive embodies our essence, our life purpose.
In the opening line of the Book of Exodus of this week’s Torah Portion, we read: “And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man and his household came.” (Exodus 1:1)
While reading the current weekly Torah portion Shemot (meaning “names”), I was drawn to look at the various names mentioned in the Parsha and their meanings, together with the multitude of names associated with this one man, Mandela, which have come to light on the world stage this past fortnight.
Nelson Mandela’s birth name was Rohihlaha, which means “pulling the branch of a tree,” although colloquially it means “troublemaker.”
When he began school, his school teacher gave him a new name — Nelson. It is not clear why she chose this name. We do know however, that Lord Nelson was a renowned British Naval Flag officer during the Napoleonic wars. He was renowned for his inspirational leadership, superb command of strategy, and unconventional tactics. This certainly does resonate when I think about Mandela.
At age sixteen, while being initiated into manhood during the traditional Xhosa rite of passage into manhood he was given the name Dalibhunga, meaning “convener of the dialogue.” Instead of taking up arms on his release from prison, Mandela began a dialogue with the apartheid regime which ultimately led to the first multiracial elections. A true mediator and peacemaker, he earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
As I witnessed the events around Mandela’s death from my home in Israel, I felt a new connection to the Eastern Cape province I was brought up in, just a few hundred kilometers from where he was laid to rest.
Reading more into this week’s Parsha, the same week in which “the Moses of Africa” was laid to rest in the soil of his hometown, I further appreciate the enormity of the biblical persona that Nelson Mandela embodied.
The life of Madiba (the clan of which Mandela is a member), has remarkable parallels with some of our key biblical figures, more so than any world leader of the past century.
Like Joseph, he rose from being a prisoner to elevated heights. From Mandela’s early childhood as a rural shepherd boy, he was later to become a political activist who was imprisoned for his beliefs, and ultimately became a venerated world leader.
Where will you find a Father of a Nation who, like Jacob, suffered and struggled and was consequently blessed with a new name? Just as Jacob became Israel, so did Rohliahlala become Nelson, Madiba and Tata, symbolizing his journey, his struggle, and ultimately his fatherly role. Mandela’s famous declaration, “The struggle is my life,” is so telling when one reads the Torah reading of Jacob’s blessing:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.” (Genesis 33:29)
The list of comparisons to biblical heroes is long, but the ultimate one must surely be to the leader and redeemer of the Children of Israel, Moses. Mandela, with his solid credentials as the redeemer of his people in South Africa, is strikingly similar to Moses, who led the Israelites out of exile to freedom.
Khulu (meaning “Great one”) was buried in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, at the time when the birth of Moses is highlighted in the weekly Torah reading. We read of Moses’ encounter with an angel while shepherding the sheep of Jethro as he arrived at the mountain of G-d near Horeb:
“An angel of Hashem appeared to him in a blaze of fire in the midst of a bush.” (Exodus 3:2)
There is a midrash based on this line which says it shows that there is no place devoid of the divine presence — not even a thorn bush. It is with this midrash in mind that I contemplate the deep symbolic meaning of this past Sunday morning’s burial of Tata, (Father), in his rural hometown of Qunu — the very same Sunday that ushered in the reading of the second book of Moses.
To add to this divine synchronicity, Shemot also features the story of the birth and naming of Moses: “She called his name Moses, for I drew him from the water.” (Exodus 2;10)
Although Moses was ostensibly named as such because he was found hidden in the river, his name embodies a clearly prophetic dimension. He was drawn out of the water, but he was also destined to draw the Children of Israel out of Egypt, to become the leader.
This Hebrew word for thereשם” , “pronounced “sham” can also be read as “shem” meaning “name.” According to our sages, this second and hidden meaning implies that G-d is telling Moses to be a name or even to be his name. Like Moses, Mandela also “drew his people out.”
In Exodus (24:12) G-d tells Moses: “Ascend to me to the mountain and be there.”
Much has been said about Mandela’s legacy, but for me, as I travel my “mountain,” I see Mandela as the man who ascended his courageously to meet his destiny and became the living embodiment of his many names. He will forever remain a name.