Selected Sermon/Article
2000-03-18 Tzav by Rabbi Ze'ev Smason
The Pope and Purim

During the Thanksgiving Day Season, a synagogue had this notice posted on it's message board: 'Thanksgiving Day davening will be take place in the chapel at 9:00 am. There will be no sermon. Let us thank HaShem for our blessings' :)

Numerous mitzvos and passages in the Torah touch upon the necessity of expressing 'hakarays ha'tov', or, 'Thanksgiving', to HaShem. In parshas Tzav we read of the korban todah - the Thanksgiving offering - brought by one who survived a life-threatening crisis, to express his gratitude to the Almighty. From Psalm 107, the gemara in Brochos derives that survivors of four categories of danger are required to bring this offering: a potentially hazardous journey, imprisonment, a serious illness, or a sea voyage. Of what contemporary relevance is this mitzvah of the expression of thanksgiving?

With the exception of those living in caves, the recent news has focused upon the first Papal visit to Israel since 1964. I find it most interesting that the Pope arrived in Israel on Tuesday, the day we celebrated Purim. While observant Jews throughout the world busied themselves in their efforts to become so intoxicated that they couldn't tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai', the media and much of the Jewish world was euphoric from the intoxicating effects of the Papal visit.

Should the recent visit of the Pope evoke from us emotions of Thanksgiving and gratitude? On the one hand, I believe that it should. The last time a Pope made a pilgrimage to Israel, the Catholic Church was still reciting a prayer on Good Friday entitled "A prayer for the conversion of the perfidious Jews." Pope Paul IV was visiting an Israel that the Vatican did not recognize. And indeed, during his visit, not once did he refer to Israel by name, and in meeting with the President of Israel, he referred to him as 'Mr. Shazar', refusing to give him the dignity of his title.

That was then. Now, a Pope has come to an Israel with which the Vatican has diplomatic relations, and who refers to the Jews as 'elder brothers in the faith." This is the first Pope to ever attend a synagogue service, and who this week participated in a Holocaust memorial program at Yad VaShem, in Israel. Positively intoxicating,no? - considering our collective historical memories of Inquistions, Crusades and the religiously fanned flames of vile anti-semitism.

I believe that we have a debt of gratitude to be payed to the Almighty for a break in the almost 2000 year chain of religiously inspired Church anti-semitism. However, post-Purim intoxication to the point of delerium carries with it the risk of a lack of perspective. A prominent Orthodox rabbi, commenting on this past week's Papal visit, roundly criticized Israel's Chief Rabbis for not meeting the Pope at the Western Wall, criticized Orthodox leaders who themselves objected to Shabbos desecration by the Israeli police due to an outdoor Mass held on Shabbos in Nazereth, and pronounced the current Pope, unequivocally, as 'a friend'.

Is Pope John Paul II a 'friend' of Israel? Newspapers this week reported that the politically savvy Pope kissed a golden bowl of 'Palestinian soil' - a gesture seen by Palestinians as a recognition of their dreams for statehood. And as a beaming Yasser Arafat looked on, the pontiff proclaimed Palestinians' 'natural right to a homeland'. What, one might ask, is the Popes' source for this 'natural right' to a Palestinian homeland? The media quoted Pope John Paul II as saying that the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians should be decided not by the Bible , but incredibly, by International Law. Translation of 'International Law": the"United Nations", ladies and gentlemen. The Pope is a friend?

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the The New Republic, perceptively pointed out in an essay titled 'Sorry', that it doesn't feel right, and he doesn't even know what it means, to accept an apology on our ancestors' behalf. Can we absolve, Wieseltier asks, the Church for what was done by their sword, in their name, and in their theological perspectives, to millions of Jews throughout the centuries? While such 'apologies', if ever clearly forthcoming, may be a step in the right direction, a much more substantive gesture would be for the Vatican to open it's archives on the Holocaust years, and to return the hundreds of thousands of Jewish books and artifacts that it holds in the Vatican vaults, perhaps dating to the time of Bayis Shayni - the Second Temple.

Former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was once quoted as saying that sovereign countries don't have 'friends' ; rather, they have 'interests' Similarly,I believe that it's naive in the extreme to consider the Pope and Church to be 'friends' of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The Pope is not a friend of Israel; the United States is not a friend of Israel -they are only entities that have, on occasion, an interest in us.

Chazal (our rabbis) tell us that in the messianic era, a number of sacrifices will no longer be brought. The korban todah - the Thanksgiving sacrifice - however, will still be brought at that time. Why? Gratitude is a spiritual muscle that needs to be excercised, and will be just as necessary then, as it is now. A balance of understanding is needed to approach these confusing times in which we live - feelings and expressions of gratitude to the Almighty for the change in spirit of the Catholic Church towards the Jewish people and Israel, and a historical perspective that has confirmed for us time and time again a lesson taught so simply in the Torah: Yisrael badad yoshayv (Israel dwells alone) - we have no friends amongst the nations of the world, just those who have, on occasion, an interest in us. Good Shabbos