The ailing former South African president, Nelson Mandela, has captivated the hearts and minds of people around the world. For almost a month, global media giants have been keeping vigil at his hospital, literally watching and waiting for Mandela’s every breath.

This kind of worldwide attention, if not obsession, is a remarkable and unique phenomenon as it heralds a different kind of celebrity; not a celebrity of film, sports or music but a celebrity of moral principles.

Virtually all other global celebrities are famous for their physical prowess – their looks, speed, strength or wealth. Nelson Mandela is a celebrity famous for his moral convictions. He is a celebrity of compassion, forgiveness, freedom and democracy. He is a hero of the spirit.

A story in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, symbolizes the kind of heroism that has captured the imagination of the world.

Nelson Mandela relates how his daughter Zeni, who in 1978 married Prince Thumbeumuzi, son of the Swazi king, came with her new husband and their newborn baby to visit him in prison: “There was a tremendous advantage in Zeni becoming a member of the Swazi royal family: She was immediately granted diplomatic privileges and could visit me virtually at will. That winter after she and Thumbeumuzi were married, they came to see me, along with their newborn baby daughter.

“Because of the prince’s status we were allowed to meet one another in the consulting room, not the normal visiting area where one is separated from one’s family by thick walls and glass. I waited for them with some nervousness.

It was a truly wondrous moment when they came into the room. I stood up, and when Zeni saw me, she practically tossed her tiny baby to her husband and ran across the room to embrace me. I had not held my now grown-up daughter since she was about her own daughter’s age. It was a dizzying experience, as though time had sped forward in a science fiction novel, suddenly to hug one’s fully grown child.

“I then embraced my new son and he handed me my tiny granddaughter, whom I did not let go of for the entire visit. To hold a newborn baby so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands, hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I do not think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day.”

This bitter-sweet interaction is symbolic of the pain he experienced during his 27 years in prison. It reminds us of the enormous sacrifices that Nelson Mandela made for the sake of his calling to fight for equality and dignity for all South Africans. He gave up everything for the cause – his freedom, his family and almost life itself. During his years of imprisonment, in spite of repeated offers, he refused to compromise his principles to secure an early release. And then after all his suffering he unleashed the power of super-human forgiveness for the sake of creating the new South Africa, bringing together in unity and harmony, all of its peoples.

We live in a world awash with selfishness and infatuated with materialism, a world which worships the heroes of the physical. In stark contrast, Nelson Mandela is a celebrity hero of the spirit, a hero of values and moral conviction. The adulation and the almost unprecedented international reaction to his life and now his illness are a reflection of how we are all inspired by the power of goodness, forgiveness and living for a higher purpose.

From the dawn of creation we know the human being has two parts: body and soul, or in the language of the Book of Genesis, “dust of the earth” and the “breath” of life from G-d.

The majesty and inspiration of people comes from the soul that G-d has breathed into each and every one of us. The natural instincts of the body are selfish and obsessed with immediate self-gratification, but the soul’s calling is to live with values and purpose.

Amidst societies which idolize the powers and celebrities of the body, Nelson Mandela attests to the enduring the power of the soul, the power of principle over expediency, of giving over grabbing, of enduring values over momentary selfish pleasure, of the path to real happiness which only truly comes from living with moral purpose. Offering advice for life, the Vilna Gaon once wrote to his children that pursuing materialism and physical gratification alone is like drinking salt water – the more you drink the thirstier you become; it promises personal fulfillment, but doesn’t deliver.

Nelson Mandela gives us and our children the gift of being a celebrity of moral principles, a hero of the soul, so that we are not merely left with vacuous, plastic celebrities of the body, so many of whom have disappointed through lives which have disintegrated into the cesspool of selfish gratification and corruption.

The overwhelming universal response to Nelson Mandela reveals the latent power of the deep spiritual forces within human beings that are moved when we witness a great spirit. The phenomenon of the global romance with Nelson Mandela is a sign of hope for humanity; we are still moved by heroes of the spirit. And that is our hope for the future, as Mandela relates further about what happened at that meeting with his daughter and new-born granddaughter: “The visit had a more official purpose and that was for me to choose a name for the child. It is the custom for the grandfather to select a name, and the one I had chosen was Zaziwe – which means ‘Hope.’ “The name had a special meaning for me, for during all my years in prison hope never left me – and now it never would. I was convinced that this child would be a part of a new generation of South Africans for whom apartheid would be a distant memory – that was my dream.”

Nelson Mandela was a beacon of hope in the dark days of Apartheid, and now even as he struggles for life he remains a beacon of the hope. He symbolizes the power of the spirit to change the world, the power of goodness over materialism and selfishness, of hope over fear. The physical world seems so invincible, and yet it was the forces of goodness, forgiveness and morality lived by Nelson Mandela and others that ultimately defeated the physical brute strength of the Apartheid regime. As the Prophet Zecharia said (4:6), “Not by might nor by power but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.

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