The crowds that greeted Pope Francis in America were so profoundly joyous that even those of us who are not Catholic felt drawn to the exuberance. This festivity of hope in humanity emanates from Pope Francis who is the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. Yet, the joy comes from his real power, his compelling message of compassion that he offers in a way that makes him immediate, familiar and accessible not only to Catholics but to those of different faith communities and to non-believers alike.
As a Jewish woman of faith I rejoice to share in a common cause of compassion and justice. It is easy for me to see how a Jewish woman could feel connected to the hope that Pope Francis has brought to America by appealing to the best in us. Last week in the morning service of Yom Kippur I could clearly see that social justice that has been part of my heritage so easily joined the pope’s message. I thought about it as we read on Yom Kippur from the Book of Isaiah about the meaning of the fast, “it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, and when you see the naked to clothe them.”
Isaiah draws directly on what Torah repeatedly reminds us that we are obligated to treat with compassion the marginalized, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the Ger. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Leviticus 19:33-34]. Torah reminds us at least 36 times to behave ethically toward the stranger and in the broader sense the obligations that it entails for us now in the face of the suffering of undocumented immigrants at home and of the multitude of refugees in Europe seeking shelter.
Speaking to Congress last week Pope Francis told us that we shouldn’t be afraid to take in refugees, we should not see them as statistics but look at each face and see them as human beings. Millions, the pope said, came to this American continent not afraid of foreigners because most of us in America were once foreigners. When we think of immigration laws, the pope noted, we need to remember that most of us in this country are immigrants.
In his address to Congress the pope eclipsed the din of xenophobia here and in Europe. The pope gently urged political leaders to hear the often ignored, but profound biblical message of the creation of humanity in God’s image. He said that “Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
In the last few weeks we read in the Sabbath morning service from the Book of Deuteronomy about Moses’ compelling instructions to the Israelites, “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” [24:19-20]. It was in that frame of mind that I heard Pope Francis address to the joint session of Congress as he offered Moses as “the law giver of Israel” and the leader who “leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being.” Legislative activity, Pope Francis told Congress, is always best when it takes care of all the people, has empathy for the less fortunate and when it remembers to “Do unto others as you will have them do unto you.”
Millions have heard Pope Francis as the media kept the focus on his visit and on the exuberance that was irresistible and hopeful. Now that the physical presence of the pope is no longer here the question of whether his message would be just a brief moment of hope or an enduring movement of compassion is up to us.