This week the Jewish people commemorate the thirty-third day of the omer - Lag B’omer with bonfires, a festive meal, parades, music, haircuts and beard trims. The day commemorates the end of a tragic period of Jewish history when the disciples of Rabi Akiva in the second century CE stopped dying of a mysterious plague that decimated them. Another opinion that has some traditional backing is that these disciples of Rabi Akiva followed their mentor in supporting the rebellion of Bar Kochba against the Roman emperor Hadrian. This revolutionary war ended disastrously for the Jews with enormous amounts of Jews killed by the Roman legions during the rebellion and afterwards as well. Somehow all of these deaths ended on this thirty-third day of the omer and the mourning for those killed was suspended for that day. Over the centuries the day also came to symbolize the day of death of the great second century CE scholar and holy man, Rabi Shimon ben Yochai who is buried in Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee. A pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Lag B’omer is also a traditional event on that day here in Israel. Because of the numerous bonfires enthusiastically fueled by the young children of Israel on Lag B’omer the country is covered by a haze of acrid smoke. It is environmentally challenging but somehow vaguely reassuring as well. Custom and tradition as usual mark this historic date as one that is embedded deeply in the collective Jewish memory.
This week in the modern State of Israel, the Pope of Rome is coming to visit. All visits of popes to Israel - I believe that Benedict is the fourth prelate to do so - arouse great interest and an undercurrent of controversy. The Vatican has not been a traditional friend of the Jewish people over its long history - to put the case in its mildest form possible. Nevertheless it is an occasion of note to realize that the Vatican actually recognizes the State of Israel as a legitimate nation - something which most of the Moslem world has yet to do - and has gone to some lengths to attempt to rectify its teachings, liturgy and theology regarding the Jews. The revelations after the Holocaust, the apparent silent complicity of the Vatican and its then pope Pius XII, and the emergence of a more liberal strain within Catholicism on many issues have all contributed to a new interaction between Jews and the Vatican. The Church elevated us to the status of "elder brother," officially stopped specific missionary activities against Jews, and has attempted what in its eyes is an even handed policy towards the State of Israel. The Church certainly has a long way to go to make proper amends for its brutal behavior towards Jews over the centuries but it is clear to any unbiased observer that the attitude of the Church towards Jews today is the most benign that it has ever been in its long history. The mere presence of the Pope in Israel this week is an event that should be appreciated for its historical significance.
The Pope will undoubtedly notice the smoky haze over Jerusalem on Lag B’omer. His retinue of advisers and experts may have already explained to him why this peculiar event of bonfires is occurring. But to me there is a symbolism in the confluence of the Pope’s visit and Lag B’omer. The Church absorbed the Roman Empire within its culture, ritual and society. The Jews continued to battle against Roman culture, practices and ways long after they were seemingly defeated by Hadrian and his legions. There are no pilgrimages to the grave of Hadrian. What is truly vital and long lasting within Church doctrine is what is borrowed and adapted from Judaism. The Pope’s visit here in Israel this week vindicates this truth. Our ancestors who lived in the dark exile of millennia under Church domination would be amazed and wondrous that the Pope of Rome is making an official visit to Jewish Jerusalem and Israel. As we do with all of the wondrous historical events that surround the return of the Jewish people to their rightful homeland we take the Pope’s visit in stride as being somehow at worst a nuisance - the traffic in Jerusalem will be unbearable during his visit - and at best a gesture of true historic good will and reconciliation. The words of the prophets of Israel that many nations will come to Jerusalem to seek God and His spiritual sustenance continue to resonate in our world in spite of all of the dangers and problems that surround us.