Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and the Torah: Standing Up for Human Rights

Celebrating Human Rights and mourning a champion of Human Rights.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

That is our experience. This past Shabbat, the Jacksonville Jewish Center observed Human Rights Shabbat, sponsored and organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and joined over 150 congregations to participate in this special Shabbat immediately prior to the December 10th recognition of International Human Rights Day. So too, this past Shabbat, we mourned as the world lost a prophet. Nelson Mandela, a champion of Human Rights, died at the age of 95. He was a South African anti-apartheid politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994-199, following 27-years in prison because of his fight for equality. He was the first black South African to be elected President and the first President elected in a fully representative election, one in which blacks in the country were allowed to vote. Fighting for Human Rights, he taught:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

More remarkable to me than Mandela standing up for Human Rights, for his own rights, were those who eventually joined him in his fight: 18-year-old Christo Brand was a white prison guard at Robben Island, in charge of watching over prisoner Nelson Mandela. He believed the white man was superior and didn’t hesitate to share his pro-apartheid views. But throughout their relationship, Brand began to believe in the Human Rights that Mandela was fighting for. He developed a friendship with Mandela, smuggled him food while in prison, and transferred to Pollsmoor Prison when Mandela was moved there to continue to watch over him. And while it was truly revolutionary that Mandela’s prison guards were sitting in the front row for his 1994 inauguration, Mandela, once freed, would visit Brand in his home and play with his infant son. When Mandela retired from politics, his education fund awarded a scholarship to Brand’s now grown son, to study, and fight for Human Rights as well. Brand, the white prison guard, learned that it too was his responsibility to fight for the human rights of his friend, his brother.  

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

So too in our country, we remembered and acknowledged taking a stand for Human Rights this past week as we marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, because all the other seats on the bus were occupied, she was arrested on December 1st, 1955. This event set off a year-long boycott of public transportation among Montgomery’s African-American population, many of whom were regular commuters on public transportation. They carpooled, and often walked for long miles in sweltering heat and pouring rain. Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat 58 years ago this week was the catalyst for such a boycott.

I am in awe of Parks’ courage and strength. Yet, I am also in awe of the courage of those who joined with her and supported the bus boycott. Rabbi Seymour Atlas served Montgomery’s Agudath Israel Congregation during the 1950’s. A photo appeared in Life Magazine with Rabbi Atlas standing side-by-side with an African-American peer who was participating in the boycott. Immediately following that, he gave a Shabbat sermon suggesting that the Jewish community as a whole participate in the Montgomery bus boycott and refrain from using public transportation.

I completely understand why he would do so. After all, I always learned that the Jewish community was immensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, this was Montgomery, where the city as a whole, including the vast majority of its Jewish community, supported segregation. Congregants at Agudath Israel wanted Rabbi Atlas to ask Life Magazine to retract the picture taken of him, calling it an error. He refused. And when he publicly supported the bus boycott, he was relieved of his duties as rabbi at Agudath Israel. Yet, that too did not stop him. He continued to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He continued to support the bus boycott. He continued to take a stand on an issue that did not directly affect him, but affected him simply because he is human, because Rosa Parks was his sister. He continued to take a stand because the issue of Civil Rights was really an issue of Human Rights.

We recognize the importance of taking a stand for Human Rights, taking a stand, not just for us, but for others as well. For taking a stand for others is taking a stand for ourselves because all of our lives are interwoven and connected.

A successful right hand man of Pharaoh, Joseph has come a long way from being picked on and bullied by his siblings, being thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and sent in prison. Now that he controls the wealth and crops, his brothers travel to Egypt and approach him, asking for food during the famine. We find at the end of Parashat Mikketz that after being bullied in his youth, Joseph becomes the bully. He places a goblet in younger brother Benjamin’s knapsack, only to find it in there moments later and accuse him of stealing it. Joseph demands that Benjamin become his slave in return while the other brothers may return to Canaan.

The beginning of  Parashat Va-yiggash, which the Jewish community read this past Shabbat, is the reason we do what we do when it comes to standing up for Human Rights. Judah, the same brother who suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites only chapters ago, takes a stand. He calls out to Joseph and demands that Joseph enslave him instead of Benjamin. He cannot live a free life if his brother is not free. He cannot appreciate his rights if his brother’s rights are taken from him.

Instead of just groveling, Judah takes a stand. How could he return without his brother?! Who is he without his brother?! He could not imagine living life to the fullest while his brother is enslaved. So he – who is free and is not being penalized at all – takes a stand for Benjamin. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for another. He’s willing to take a stand for his brother.

In fact, standing up for Human Rights is how the Torah portion begins: Va’Yiggash Alav Yehudah. And Judah went  up to Joseph. We refer to the parasha by this first word: Va’Yiggash: and Judah went up. And Judah stood up. And Judah took a stand. But as I learned from my friend and teacher Yael Hammerman, the Hasidic Rabbi the Sfat Emet suggests that this means something more: he translates this as “And Judah came close to him,” and clarifies that the “him” is not only Joseph. Judah came close to himself, came close to Benjamin whose rights he was fighting for, for Benjamin’s rights were also Judah’s rights, and in this courageous act of taking a stand, he also came close to God.

While the Jewish people are called the Children of Israel (of Jacob, Judah’s father) in the Torah, the term, Jewish, and Judaism, comes from the fact that we are the People of Judah. We settled in the land of Judea, represented by the strong lion of Judah. Thus, to identify as the Jewish people, the people of Judah, is to proudly declare that we are a people who stand up for Human Rights.

There are so many areas where we must continue to fight for Human Rights. They happen in every corner of the world, and they happen in our own backyard. All we have to do is open up the newspaper, and be willing to open up our eyes, to realize that we have a responsibility to take a stand for the rights of another. We must be willing to take a stand for that is what our tradition teaches us, and urges us, to do. Find your cause. Find your fight. Step up. Be a voice for the silent and stand up tall for the downtrodden.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: All Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Or to put it more simply, we are all, BTzelem Elohim, made in the Image of God.

As a congregation and community, we did not just observe Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated our proud history of taking a stand for Human Rights. We celebrated being a voice for morality.

In the spirit of Human Rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, may their memories be for a blessing, but also in the spirit of Christo Brand – Mandela’s prison guard who became his supporter and friend – and in the spirit of Rabbi Seymour Atlas – who lost his job because he stood up for what was right – let us stand up for justice and Human Rights. Let us participate in an act that is so engrained in our faith and tradition. Let us, like Judah, stand up for the rights of others, for we are all brothers and sisters. In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to all of humanity, we bring ourselves closer to ourselves, and we bring ourselves closer to God.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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One response to “Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and the Torah: Standing Up for Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Praying with our Feet: Teaching Children to Fight for Human Rights | Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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