Sermon: Pulling the Branch of a Tree

“Pulling the Branch of a Tree”
Parashat Vayigash
December 6, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper

I was all prepared to discuss a book that I had read on my flight back to Connecticut tonight. It inspired me and well, you’ll hear about it maybe next week.  Tonight I thought it meaningful and timely to take some time from our worship, as we prepare two students for their claiming of Torah legacy tomorrow to reflect on the life of Nelson “Madiba” Mandela. For his 95 years electrified this world in which we live and brought barriers of race and color crashing down.

Maybe Mandela was the muse when Maya Angelou penned these words in 2009.

When Great Trees Fall

        Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.


Yes Mandela existed, for the majority of my adult life, from the beginnings of the struggle to erase Apartheid to his release from a jail cell at Robbin Island, to his swearing in ceremony as the leader of a new South Africa, Mandela, time and again took center stage.

What gives a man the courage to change the world in the way that he did. How does a simple idea of human freedom, something we all too often take for granted, become the rallying cry of a nation and a people and the world?   How does a young man, filled with hope, leave behind a movement of violence and become the peaceful changemaker that he was?

For the past 36 hours, these questions have filled the airwaves. Answers have been offered by historians and pundits, friends of Mandela and adversaries.

He was a unique soul.  

Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa, “Rolihlahla” means “pulling the branch of a tree” — or, troublemaker. The name “Nelson” was given to him by his teacher on his first day of elementary school. It’s not clear why she chose that particular name. It was the early 1920s, and African children were given English names so British colonials could pronounce them easily. Did he ever live up to his given birth name!

He was a master of disguise: When Mandela was eluding authorities during his fight against apartheid, he disguised himself in various ways, including as a chauffeur. The press nicknamed him “the Black Pimpernel” because of his police evasion tactics. “I became a creature of the night. I would keep to my hideout during the day, and would emerge to do my work when it became dark,” he says in his biography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

He drew his inspiration from a poem: While locked up at Robben Island for decades, Mandela would read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” to fellow prisoners. The poem, about never giving up, resonated with Mandela. Its closing line, is also a favorite of mine.  


  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.


He truly was one of the greatest leaders of our time. His message and life are summed up in a few of the tributes to him that have been posted around the world.  

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“My message to my fellow South Africans — over the past 24 years, Madiba taught us how to come together and how to believe in ourselves and each other, a unifier from the moment he walked out of prison. He taught us extraordinarily practical lessons about forgiveness and compassion and reconciliation.”

Former South African President F.W. de Klerk

“Nelson Mandela’s biggest legacy was his commitment to reconciliation, was his remarkable lack of bitterness and the way in which he did not only talk about reconciliation but he made reconciliation happen in South Africa.

“He was a magnanimous person, he was a compassionate person; he was not only a man of vision, he was not only a great leader, but he was also a very human, human man.”

Tokyo Sexwale, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island

“Nelson Mandela demonstrated that leadership is not about power, but on the contrary, about honor. That is what we learned from Nelson Mandela during the dark days with him on Robben Island. Today he is seen as an icon in the world, whose teachings, principles and values need to be embraced by all. He was embraced even by even white wardens, his own jailers, because he demonstrated that through the power of dialogue … people on different sides, former enemies, can come together. That’s how we in South Africa were able to resolve our intractable problems created by the racist system of apartheid.”

 Here in this country, far from the violent and oppressive racism against which Mandela raged, there were impactful moments as well. His struggle and the struggle of the ANC, gave birth to anti-apartheid activism here.

It began with a financial boycott, of sorts. Students on campuses across the country in the late 1970s called for their universities and colleges to divest from investments in South Africa. That led to sit-ins and protest marches that by the mid-1980s drew thousands. Today, this type of activism — financial boycotts — have become a protest staple.

It then embedded itself in popular culture. It began in 1985 with musician Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City,” a song that protested the South African policy of apartheid. That was followed in 1986 with the release of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which featured South African musicians — including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Art and crafts sprung up all over the globe with his image and message. And the movies that describe his life and struggle continue to emerge.

Finally in the political sphere, his influence has given voice to a generation of leaders who found power in his struggle and voice in his message of self-determination.  

Yes, very impactful.

So every sermon is supposed to have a “nechemta” a moral or message. It has to inspire us to do something. So here is my sealing of this message. I hope that we can now see the value of an idea and the results of effort and the blessings of success.  

May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace – loving United States and a just and peaceful world.  May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us. May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”

As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

And let us add: May God bless us all.