A message from Rabbi Geri Newburge
March 15, 2013
This Week's Torah Portion and the New Pope
This week’s torah portion is Vayikra. The book of Leviticus. This Hebrew word, Vayikra, is written vov, yud, kuf, reish, aleph. The word vayikra translates “and God called…”- in this case God’s call was directed to Moses. The last letter, the aleph, is written smaller than all the other letters. Much commentary can be found as to why there is this distinction. One of the frequent interpretations is that Moses felt insufficient to his role, a sign of his great humility, which was symbolized by this miniature aleph.
Of course, we call Moses our greatest prophet. Yet, greatness and humility, in the Jewish tradition, are not incompatible. For us they are complementary. For a person to be humble one does not have to be Moses; or someone possessing such magnificent attributes (and it goes without saying that being a jerk really doesn’t involve much humility). According to tradition, the greater the individual the more humble he is expected to be and is likely to be. The rabbis in the Talmud (Taanit 7a) compare the Torah to water, for just as water only runs downhill, never uphill, the word of God can only be heard in a humble heart. Thus is was Moses who brought our ancestors the Torah.
It is this virtue of humility that has been the clarion call for the newest pope, Pope Francis. Please, do not think I am comparing him to Moses or putting him in that stratosphere. Rather I am reminded of these stories, perhaps coincidentally, as I read of Pope Francis and his life and service with the Catholic Church. Relationships between the Vatican and the Jewish community have often been less than ideal and so it bears a few moments of reflection at this dawn of a new era. Fortunately there seems to be an outstanding precedent with the new Pope and the Jewish community. Several stories and individuals have attested to this.
After the bombing of the [AMIA] Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) "showed solidarity with the Jewish community," said Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee. He also shared with news source JTA that the new pope is a "warm and sweet and modest man". In 2005, Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition for justice in the [AMIA] bombing case, and in September 2007 he attended Rosh Hashanah services at the Benei Tikva Slijot synagogue.
Last November, Bergoglio hosted a Kristallnacht memorial event at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral with a Rabbi [Alejandro Avruj] from the [NCI-Emanuel] World Masorti congregation.
Similarly, According to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, “The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Jorge Bergoglio for several years." "We know his values and strengths. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church."
Like his predecessor, Pope Francis reached out to Rome's Jewish community at the very start of his pontificate, pledging to continue to strengthen the increasingly close ties between Catholics and Jews.
Just hours after he was elected the first non-European pope in history, Francis sent a letter to Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo di Segni, saying he hoped to "contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics" have seen since the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, offered Italian Jewry's congratulations to the new pope with the “most fervent wishes” that his pontificate could bring “peace and brotherhood to all humanity.”
In particular, Gattegna voiced the hope that there would be a continuation “with reciprocal satisfaction” of “the intense course of dialogue that the Jews have always hoped for and that has been also realized through the work of the popes who have led the church in the recent past."
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Francis would be a "welcome guest in the Holy Land" while Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said the new pope "always had an open ear for our concerns."
"By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world," Lauder said. "I am sure that Pope Francis I will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths."
So there is a very positive precedent with Pope Francis and the Jewish community. We hope and pray that his previous actions are an indication of how he will continue to interact with the worldwide Jewish community. Certainly his well attested to humility will serve him well.
Nahmanides deals with the challenge of humility in a famous letter he wrote to his son: "I shall explain how you should become accustomed to the practice of humility in your daily life. Let your voice be gentle, and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards. When you speak to someone do not look him in the face. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes. If he is wise or rich you have reason to respect him. If he is poor and you are richer or wiser than he, think to yourself that you are therefore all the more unworthy and he all the less, for if you sin you do so intentionally whereas he only sins unintentionally." These words may seem severe, especially the latter part of the letter, but as always we learn a valuable lesson from our ancestor here. May these words find their way to Pope Francis heart so that he too might lead the Catholic Church and all those who interact with him in divine service to humanity.