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S. Thurgood: Address to Africa Summit

Address to Africa Summit 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 21–25, 2018


Good afternoon, honored dignitaries, and I hope I can say brothers and sisters, friends, shalom aleikum. Greetings to you of peace and of the presence of the divine of God.

As you heard, my name is Rabbi Sam Thurgood. It is my great honor to speak in the name of the Jewish faith. Unlike the other wonderful speakers you have heard, I did not personally have the privilege of meeting Madiba [Mandela], but he was my president. I stood in the queue with my parents to vote. My father met Madiba, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute. I grew up in a country illuminated by his light.

My very first lesson in politics was when I was still a child and I had heard my father speaking about various political leaders. I hope you won’t mind my saying that my father is quite a cynical man and he didn’t always have such good things to say. And I said, “But dad, everyone says that Mandela is so great, is so amazing, so wonderful. They speak about him in almost superhuman terms. Is that really true?” And my father said, “Yes. With Mandela that is very true. He is someone who truly deserves all the praise and all of the admiration that he receives.”

The time my father met him involved in incident at a railway where my father worked. There was a situation of tremendous tension that threatened at any moment to erupt into violence and loss of life. My father, like many others, was at a loss as to what to do. He said Mandela heard about this. This was before he was president but after he was released from prison. He came over straightaway, and he said it was like oil on troubled waters. Somehow he was able to resolve, to dispel the situation, so that everyone left in peace and calmness. What a special man.

As a religious leader, one of the great challenges and one of the great tasks is to give messages to people about not only how great religious values are but how they ought to be lived and how they ought to be applied in the world. There is nothing more important than having a role model, than having an example, than having a great person that stands for and embodies so many of the values that we try to communicate to ourselves, to our children and to all future generations.

The book of Psalms says that God’s compassion extends to every single one of his creation. That is an abstract thing; that is something we hear about and try to understand. But Nelson Mandela lived that in his life. He demonstrated love and compassion towards all.

The Torah, the Jewish Bible, tells us, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” We know that our president devoted his life to justice. The word justice also means righteousness. Thus, he also devoted his life to righteousness. However, the Torah does not simply say do righteousness. It says pursue righteousness. It takes an extra effort. It takes an extra commitment, and as he demonstrated, it takes a great deal of sacrifice in pursuit of justice. This is an example that we can proudly hold up to say, “This is what a human being should strive to be.”

He had an incredible eye toward nation-building, as we heard, to treasure every person and to make every person, every sector of society feel that they were treasured and that they were valued. The Torah tells us that human beings are created in the image of God, that every human being has a divine value and a godly spark. It is one thing to say that. It is one thing to believe it, but it is another thing to treat each person, to treat each community, to treat those different from you as if they are indeed created in the image of God and as such they are indeed worthy of the great reverence and respect that the Torah tells us to give to them. Once again, we are privileged to have had such a person in our midst, in our world and leading our country.

Finally, as has been mentioned, is his capacity for forgiveness. We pray to God so often for forgiveness for the things that we have done wrong. After we make mistakes, it is so important to learn from them, to put things right, to do whatever we can, but afterwards we still turn and say, “Please, may we be forgiven?”

Our Jewish sages say that we can only truly count on God’s forgiveness towards us if we are able to demonstrate that forgiveness toward other people. So often in my interactions with people, somebody has said, “Rabbi, I agree with the principle, but why should I forgive them? It’s a good thing to know about, it’s a good thing to say in the abstract, but in my own life when somebody has hurt me, when somebody has wronged me, how can you expect me to achieve and to grant such forgiveness?”

And once again there is nothing more valuable than seeing this great man who had the power to forgive or not to forgive, but from the beginning he chose the power of reconciliation, the power of forgiveness. The greatness inside him was such that it encompassed his friends and enemies, it encompassed his entire world and turned them all into his friends and his loyal admirers and followers.

The great legacy of Mandela will continue for years and generations to come. The Jewish faith believes that every year not only are people living on this earth evaluated for the good that they have done, but even once the righteous are in heaven they get rewarded on an ongoing basis for the good that is done in their name, for the legacy that they have left in this world.

We know that not only did our great president achieve so much and deserve so much goodness for his time on this earth but the legacy that he set for all of us is one that will continually bear fruit, will grow greater and greater, taking us all to ever higher heights in the world to come, and taking us and the entire world to a higher level with him.

May his memory always be a blessing. And I thank you once again for the honor and the opportunity.



To go to the 2018 Africa Summit Schedule page, click here.