This post was originally shared on December 6, 2013

Today, the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Even in Israel, a nation with which Mandela had a complicated, yet supportive relationship, his loss is felt.  “He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and as a highly important moral leader,” wrote Prime Minister Netanyahu who also stated that Mandela “worked to heal the tears in South African society and succeeded with his personality to prevent outbreaks of racial hatred.”  The tears have returned to South Africa and have spread across the world as the loss of Mandela is felt deeply by the global community.

As I read the many accolades that appeared online last night and this morning, I was struck by the words of singer and activist Bono who wrote in an article entitled “The Man Who Could Not Cry” that as a result of being forced to work long hours in a limestone mine while a prisoner, Mandela’s tear ducts were severely damaged by dust.  The damage left him unable to cry until surgery in 1994 which corrected the problem in at least one eye. Bono writes, “For all this man’s farsightedness and vision, he could not produce tears in a moment of self-doubt or grief.”

After reading all of the powerful words praising the late South African leader, I was struck by Bono’s willingness to admit that even Mandela, a man that the singer idolized, was imperfect.  And, I was impressed that Bono was willing to admit that Mandela’s inability to cry was a “flaw”.  Bono, like most people who knew Mandela, saw him as the epitome of strength and courage – willing to put everything on the line to stop injustice.  Many might argue that Mandela’s inability to shed tears is not even worth a mention – particularly since we often see tears as a sign of weakness.  Bono felt differently – he knew that if Mandela could have, he would have wept.

This week, we read about another great leader – Joseph – the son of our patriarch Jacob.  As many of you know, Joseph was treated terribly by his brothers who tossed him into a pit which resulted in him being sold into slavery and transported to Egypt.  Overtime, however, Joseph would rise to power in Egypt as he gained the trust and admiration of the Pharaoh.  Many years later, a plague destroys the produce of Israel and Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food.  They find themselves standing before their brother Joseph who forgives them, embraces them and, as he does so, cries.  Joseph’s tears are not seen as a sign of weakness – but rather a sign of just how genuine and compassionate he was.

By reminding us that Nelson Mandela was unable to cry – but had this flaw corrected in 1994, Bono is doing something very important.  Just like the Torah depicts the great and powerful Joseph weeping over his brothers, Bono allows us to imagine the countless tears that could have been shed by Mandela over the injustice he experienced.  His lack of tears were not a sign of strength – rather they were a result of his captivity.  As the world mourns his passing, it is important that grief be expressed freely – which means with tears.  Tears need not be seen as a sign of weakness.  Rather, they can be a beautiful reflection of pure, unbridled emotion.  Today, the world sheds the tears that Nelson Mandela could not shed – let them flow.

May his memory be a blessing.


  1. Linda Wachtel Reply

    I still remember the time when he embraced Arafat and said that Israel should not include the West Bank, the Golan heights and the Gaza Strip.I can still visualize the photo of him embracing Arafat. It upset me so much then and maybe somewhat today.

  2. Linda,

    I hear you and have wrestled with this myself. Mandela was very close to the Palestinian cause and there are those who say he was not a friend of Israel. However, he professed the legitimacy of Zionism and, when he received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, he said Yitzhak Rabin deserved it more (Rabin was co-honored the following year). It was a rough but respectful relationship.

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