The title to this column is deliberately misleading. There never was a Mandela and me. I never met the great African leader. I never saw him face-to-face. Never peered into his eyes. Never heard his gentle, welcoming voice through anything but the media.
And yet, I felt a personal connection to him nonetheless. It was a connection that pushed me to seek him out, to fathom his mystery.
When I was in Pretoria, South Africa in August for my son’s Rabbinical ordination, I went with my wife to the hospital where Mandela was being cared for. It was late at night and the only people there were the police and scattered members of the media. Placards covered the walls and trees, wishes and prayers for the great leader that might live. My wife and I said our own prayers and departed.
On other visits to South Africa I passed by Mandela’s home in Soweto and later in Johannesburg, hoping to feel a little bit closer. When I was close to Michael Jackson he would regale me with tales of his meeting Mandela and the President’s love of practical jokes and how he cherished children.
And what was it that drew me to Madiba?
Inspiration but mostly confusion. How does a man transcend the bitterness that accrues through 27 years of unjust imprisonment? How does a man love his jailors? How does a man stay true to a message of reconciliation and harmony when it begins to erode his political base? And how does a man retreat from power and retire when he could have lived as a king?
Was he human? Was he an angel? Was he fallible like the rest of us?
As a father Mandela seems to have been imperfect. But as the father of a nation he seems to have had few flaws.
Those who have not visited South Africa will find it difficult to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement. How Blacks and Whites live together peacefully and are becoming ever more integrated. How there were never the reprisals that so many predicted would ensue after the ANC came to power. How so many whites who left the country predicting Armageddon are now returning to a county that, though still faced with many challenges, has no parallel on earth.
And what was Mandela’s secret? How was he the human who lived as though he was superhuman?
I don’t fully know. Which is why he intrigues me so deeply. But I suspect that Mandela was one of those rare, enlightened souls who came to understand, through logic, experience, and belief, that hatred is harmful and belligerence irrational. That revenge provides momentary relief but is ultimately a distraction. That bearing a grudge ultimately becomes too great a weight that pulls you down.
The obituaries not worth reading are those who claim to have understood the man. He will forever remain a mystery, the more powerful the less he can be explained in words (if I am to paraphrase Freud). Had we understood him then we might be more like him.
But while we can’t all emulate, we can choose to be inspired by his example. We can marvel at his forgiveness, be enchanted by his compassion, be moved by his goodness.
President Obama said that Mandela now belongs to the ages, a quote originally used about Lincoln by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But in a truer sense he belongs to all of us who aspire, however imperfectly, to be unencumbered by hate and guided instead by love.