The BEST: Long Walk to Freedom

Daniel Rose Tradition Online | January 7, 2021

The BEST: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Reviewed by Daniel Rose

Summary: Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography. In this popular and widely read book, Mandela narrates his journey from an anti-apartheid activist, through his incarceration on Robben Island, to gaining his freedom and later becoming the leader of the ANC, ultimately president of a reborn South Africa, winning the Nobel Peace Prize along the way. His heroic life and struggle for the freedom of his people is deeply inspiring and morally impactful, as he dedicated his life to the values of human rights and racial equality for all.

Why this is The BEST: The story of Nelson Mandela will inspire future generations because it is the most human of narratives. It revolves around the power of an individual to change the world, the underdog overcoming the tyranny of the mighty, and the fight for freedom, dignity, and equality for all. These of course were all recurring themes in the thought and writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

When R. Sacks heard of the passing of Mandela in December 2013, he issued this statement:

Today we mourn the loss of one of the world’s great leaders, the man who was our generation’s mentor in forgiveness and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela lived and breathed the politics of hope. It takes courage to hope, and even greater courage to lead a people on the long walk to freedom. Because of him not only South Africa but the world is a better place.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are themes discussed by R. Sacks when he distinguished between shame and guilt cultures. Judaism is an example of a guilt-and-repentance culture rather than the shame-and-honor culture of the ancient Greeks. In a shame culture evil attaches to the person and can never be fully forgiven. He is a pariah and the best he can hope for is to die in a noble cause. In a guilt culture like that of Judaism, evil is an attribute of the act, not the agent, leaving room for repentance, rehabilitation and reconciliation. (See his Introduction to the Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor, lxxi.)

R. Sacks has called the Jewish people the “voice of hope in the conversation of mankind” because to be a Jew is to be “an agent of hope.” “Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate” (Future Tense, 249-252). He contrasted mere optimism with the courage to hope that he saw in Nelson Mandela. “Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope” (To Heal a Fractured World, 166).

But perhaps the most significant connection between the story of Mandela’s life and the thought of R. Sacks is in the title of Mandela’s autobiography itself – a phrase R. Sacks used many times to describe the biblical journey of the Jews from slavery to freedom. For R. Sacks the Exodus narrative, despite its particularistic nature, represented a universal human story, providing inspiration for many peoples in many different ages. 

When black Americans sang, “Let my people go,” when South American liberation theologians in the 1960s based their work on the Book of Exodus, when Nelson Mandela entitled his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, each was adopting Israel’s story and making it their own (The Jonathan Sacks Haggada, 76).

In fact, rather than suggesting Mandela was coopting the Exodus narrative for his own journey, on numerous occasions R. Sacks used the title of the book to capture the essence of the Exodus narrative.

As much as the biblical telling of the Israelites’ “long walk to freedom” may have inspired Nelson Mandela, his life and accomplishments inspired R. Sacks. R. Sacks concluded his statement after Mandela’s death with the following words: “The greatest tribute we can pay him is to be inspired by his memory and lifted by his ideals. We offer our sincere condolences to his family. May they find comfort in the knowledge that his spirit will live on. He permanently enlarged the horizon of human hope.” These words are now just as appropriately said about R. Sacks himself.

Daniel Rose is educational consultant and content developer for the Office of Rabbi Sacks.

Read more about The BEST or about the R. Sacks Bookshelves ProjectSign up here to receive an automated notice when each essay in this series posts. The Rabbi Sacks Bookshelves Project is presented in cooperation with the London School of Jewish Studies.

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