CAPTAINS OF OUR SOULS
One the most moving experiences for me this summer was watching a film – Invictus, about the unlikely story of Nelson Mandela and the Springbok Rugby team. It began with the newly elected President Mandela spotting a political opportunity. It was 1995. South Africa was about to host the Rugby world cup and Mandela realised what a boost it would give to the fledgling new country and his new government if they did well. But Rugby was very much a white man’s sport, and Mandela knew nothing about it. He decided to encourage the team, and not only did he invite the captain to tea, he permitted and indeed supported some of their Afrikaner ways, including their continued use of the old South African orange and white instead of the new multi-colours. The Springboks defeated the New Zealand All Blacks 15–12 in the final, which is now remembered as one of the greatest moments in South Africa’s sporting history, and a watershed moment in the post-Apartheid nation-building process. In the film this achievement is led on by Mandela’s firm encouragement. There are some wonderful quotable lines, as when Mandela is warned: “You’re risking your political capital, you’re risking your future as our leader.” He replies. “The day I am afraid to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead.” He goes to speak to the South African Sports Committee who want to close down the Springboks team in the new South Africa, and he tells them not to. And thinking of South Africa’s journey to truth and reconciliation, he says these words: “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
We do not think of forgiveness as a political weapon, but in Mandela’s hands it became one. In the film the Springbok team visit Robben Island and the tiny cell to which Mandela had been confined for so many years. Mandela explains that over his years of captivity his warders were all white men, and he grown to know them, to appreciate their ways. His forgiveness came from the heart. “On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years, I studied them. I learned their language, read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against him. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity; I know, all of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us, even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.”
Sometimes, both as Brits and perhaps as Jews we are not very good at apologising. There’s too often the half hearted apology – the apology but – I’m sorry I lost my temper but you were being really annoying. Saying “sorry but” never really works. Mandela knew this well. He said sorry and – the and being a real move to reconciliation. That’s the way Maimonides described it too, all those years ago, repentance remorse, apology, confession, real resolve never to do it again. It’s not so hard, it’s never impossible.
In the film, Mandela recites a poem, one that in a strange way fits so well with this Neila service, this last hour on Yom Kippur, this time of great peace and reconciliation in our Jewish calendar. From this poem comes the name of the film, for the poem is Invictus by the English poet William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Just as our people, our own people, were freed from physical slavery, so Yom Kippur frees us from spiritual slavery. Mandela was also freed from physical captivity but only reconciliation and forgiveness freed him from spiritual captivity. Without forgiveness we are captives of our past: with it we are captains of our souls. There were many Jews who were very close to Nelson Mandela. One of them was Albie Sachs, the great lawyer who fought against apartheid. He was held in solitary confinement and exiled. The secret police bombed his car – he survived but lost an arm. Later, trying to turn the ANC from the path of violence, in an empassioned public speech Albie Sachs flung out his arm- the arm he no longer had. He turned to them and said “If I can forgive them, so can you.” Another Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, put it like this: “However hard it is, if we do not forgive those who have hurt us, we will waste our lives replaying our past instead of building our future.” This is the same, surely, as the command of our Torah to choose life – we cannot choose our fate, but we can choose how we respond to it, and in that sense we can master it without fear, and (at this moment, after Yizkor) let go of anger and pain and grief and sorrow. May God seal us in the book of life for a year of blessings.