In the book of Deuteronomy (16:20), we are commanded: Justice, justice you shall
Our father, Lazer (Laz) Sidelsky (I have two siblings named Colin
and Ruth) pursued the law, and if ever there was a man who pursued the justice
required by the law, it was our father. But it was more than the law that he
pursued – it was mercy, compassion and kindness, which is in the true spirit of
Throughout his life, our father was a man who gave tzedaka –
charity, and devoted himself to gemilut hassadim – acts of loving kindness. This
was exemplified in his legal practice – where he related to clients not just as
clients, but as human beings to whom he gave of the best of his sage advice,
help and friendship.
Lazer Sidelsky passed away on Shavuot – the Feast of
Weeks – the day of King David’s birth and death. Lazer could be compared to King
David’s forefather Boaz, a man who continuously carried out deeds of loving
When Boaz married Ruth, little did he think that out of this
union one of their descendants would be David, king of Israel.
similar vein, when Lazer Sidelsky admitted the young Nelson Mandela to his law
firm to enable him to serve his articles, an action that no other white law firm
was prepared to take, little did he think that Mandela would rise to be the
president of the Republic of South Africa.
Our mother, Goldie Blume
Sidelsky, throughout her life fulfilled the verse of Proverbs: A virtuous woman
is a crown to her husband.
When it came to kind deeds, Goldie excelled in
her benevolence and consideration for others – Jews and Gentiles.
the Commandant of the first Jewish detachment in the S.A. Red Cross (Voluntary
Aid Detachment No 57), administering first aid and care for many people. She
took on voluntary work providing occupational therapy for people with special
When her husband, Lazer, in later years opened a law practice by
himself, Goldie worked for him in the office supporting him as a loving wife and
Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography Long Walk To
Freedom, wrote that on Walter Sisulu’s recommendation, Lazer Sidelsky had agreed
to take him on as a clerk while he completed his BA degree.
The firm of
Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, one of the largest law firms in the city of
Johannesburg, had a client base of blacks as well as whites.
wrote, “The law firm was more liberal than most. It was a Jewish firm, and in my
experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues
of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been
victims of prejudice.
The fact that Lazer Sidelsky, one of the firm’s
partners, would take on a young African as an articled clerk – something almost
unheard of in those days – was evidence of that liberalism.
whom I came to respect greatly and who treated me with enormous kindness, was
involved in African education, donating money and time to African schools. He
took a genuine interest in my welfare and future, preaching the value and
importance of education – for me individually and for Africans in general. Only
mass education, he used to say, would free my people, arguing that an educated
man could not be oppressed, because he could think for himself.”
Mandela emulated Joseph in the Bible. We read in Genesis (45:4-8), “And Joseph
said to his brethren: ‘Come near to me, I pray you.’ And they came near and he
said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. And now, be not
grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me hither; for God did send me
before you to preserve life. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God;
and he has made me a father to pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler
over all the land of Egypt.’” Later, we read in Genesis 50:15, “And when
Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead....” Rabbi Yitzhak, one of the
sages of the Midrash, asks, What did they see? They saw Joseph when he returned
from burying his father, going and looking into the pit (where they had
previously cast him); but he Joseph only had heavenly thoughts. He said to
himself: “How many wonders did the Holy One, blessed be He, perform for my
benefit – He saved me from the pit. But his brothers didn’t know what he was
thinking in his heart and said: “It may be that Joseph will hate
Nechama Leibowitz, in her commentary on the Pentateuch, wrote: “From
the moment that Jacob and his sons came to Egypt, Joseph is presented not only
as a son who honors his father, but as a faithful brother who used the power and
authority that had been given him to serve and not to dominate. Beginning with
his great speech to his brothers upon informing them of his spirit of
forgiveness and peace and love, to this taking care of his family, we do not see
him bearing a grudge or wishing to take revenge.
He was sentenced by the Supreme Court to life imprisonment and
served 27 years in jail, most of them on Robben Island. Not one member of the
apartheid governments of South Africa could ever have imagined Mandela one day
becoming president of South Africa.
He and all the black people of South
Africa had been victims of state persecution and human rights abuses. In April
1994, the Mandela-led African National Congress won South Africa’s first
elections by universal suffrage and on May 10, he was sworn in as president of
the country’s first multi-ethnic government. In 1995, he established the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission.
Instead of taking revenge upon the white
oppressors of the blacks of South Africa, Mandela wanted to make his country a
symbol of reconciliation.
Mandela said gently, “The Rainbow Nation starts
here. Reconciliation starts here.”
When Alon Liel, the former
Israeli ambassador to South Africa, first visited Lazer Sidelsky in his home in
Johannesburg, he mentioned that Mandela had asked him whether he had met his
“Who?” replied Liel. “F.W.de Klerk?” “No!” said Mandela
taken aback. “Not de Klerk – my boss, my only boss – Mr. Lazer Sidelsky!” Years
later, Sidelsky attended a dinner in honor of “Newsmaker of the
He was introduced by the MC, Time Modise, as “Madiba’s
When Mandela heard this he stood up and exclaimed, “My boss is
here, my boss is here” and promptly walked over to where Sidelsky was
Sidelsky began to stand up, but Mandela gently placed his hand
on his friend’s shoulder and said, “You don’t stand up for me, I stand up for
The two men embraced to a standing ovation of nearly a thousand
The writer is a rabbi who lives with his wife, Naomi, in
Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
This article was adapted from his book,
Mandela’s Boss (Mazo Publishers, Jerusalem 2011), which he co-authored with his
brother, Colin Sidelsky.