The Moses of the modern world died yesterday. Nelson Mandela led his people to the Promised Land, where the lion really does lie down with the lamb. But Mandela, like Moses, never got to enter that valley because it does not exist, either in South Africa or anywhere else. And so he left behind a powerful, unrealized dream, built on extraordinary courage, sacrifice, blood, endurance and humility. He was the man I most admired in the 20th century. In declining a second term as president, he eschewed the totalitarian paths of Lenin and Mao to walk with Gandhi, Havel and King. He was neither a saint nor a hero, but seemed instead a profoundly human person. In truth, we need fewer saints and heroes, who are archetypes set on fragile pedestals rather than people struggling in a stubborn world, people who experience tragedy and joy, who make compromises and trade-offs, who are inconsistent and often unfathomable, who choose life over immortality.
And Mandela was a towering person, enduring 27 years on Robben Island and emerging to ask his jailer to join with him to build a community that few had even been able to imagine. (His English first name, bestowed in grammar school, seemed a symbol of his longing to bridge once intractable divides.) He paid a heavy price – in his torture and incarceration, in his loss of a private life that sustains us on this journey – to give all of us a vision of a better world.