While the selection of a new pope is the selection of the leader of the Catholic Church, the newly instated Pope Francis of Argentina, is also a world leader whose decisions may have implications far beyond the bounds of the church itself. Even more, in a world where meaning and holiness have become so difficult to recognize, we all look to our leaders hoping to find inspiration and hope. We look for a pope who will symbolize the best of what is possible in a world leader. Indeed, for those of us who are committed to any religious tradition, we know that for many unconvinced of the righteousness or plausibility of belief, the pope may reflect on belief itself.
I am encouraged to learn that the Catholic Church’s new pope, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, displayed honorable solidarity with the Jewish people following the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in 1994. In that moment, he certainly demonstrated the essential qualities of compassion and worldliness, both of which are desperately needed in today’s spiritual leaders. I only pray that Pope Francis finds within himself the courage and wisdom to extend such compassion and sense throughout all of his decisions as leader of over 1.2 billion of our Catholic neighbors.
We Jews have never had religious leaders quite in the mold of the pope. We have had, however, a priesthood in our ancient Israelite days. Chief among those priests was the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, of whom Aaron the brother of Moses was the first. Not unlike the pope, the high priest was an exalted figure. The Torah describes his officiating at the most sacred of functions, dressed in divinely-prescribed garments, wearing a special diadem upon which the words, ‘holy to God’ were inscribed. Our ancient rabbis teach us that, even more than Moses himself, Aaron merited the high priesthood because he had a unique gift of compassion.
Our rabbis say that Aaron was “A lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, a lover of all God’s creatures, bringing them close to Torah.” Our ancient midrashic tradition of rabbinic stories are replete with accounts of Aaron-the-peacemaker. He would go to extraordinary lengths in the service of bringing people together, of healing enmity. While Moses might rail angrily against the Israelites for their disobedience, it was Aaron who would be still with them, present with them, patient with them. When Moses and Aaron died, it was for Aaron whom the Israelites mourned the longest, so beloved was he to all the people.
There is a special lesson in the Israelite high priesthood for a new pope. Holiness is best expressed through peace and compassion. The ancient Israelite tabernacle, like the Vatican itself, was a place of strictly prescribed rules and rituals. The priests and Levites who served there strove to obey divine will. Yet the leader of this cohort dedicated to God, where the service of God was each man’s vocation, was distinguished by kindness. Aaron knew all too well the danger of straying from God’s instruction, yet compassion was his defining trait. The highest Israelite office could only be held by one who knew that human relationships were the highest good, the purest source of holiness.