The pope and Joseph

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By Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27.

In October 1960, a delegation of 130 Jewish leaders met with Pope John XXIII. The pope welcomed his guests with words from this week’s parsha: “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4).

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Today, when the Vatican and Israel have warm diplomatic relations and two popes have visited Israel, Pope John XXIII’s statement does not seem so extraordinary. But, back then, after centuries of Catholic institutional, and often bloody, anti-Semitism, Pope John XXIII’s words were quite monumental.

But, then again, Pope John XXIII was quite monumental himself. A righteous gentile during WWII who saved many Jews, Pope John XXIII later convened Vatican II. That seminal conference led to the document Nostra Aetate, which rejected the charge of Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and called on the Roman Catholic Church to engage Jews in a “dialogue of mutual esteem.” Our communities’ warm relationship is due, in no small measure, to Pope John XXIII. He was a rebuilder, who was able to put the past behind and blaze ahead.


Likewise, consider the Biblical Joseph in Vayigash. Many years before the events in this parshah, his brothers sold him into slavery. Because of his brother’s malice, Joseph endured years of servitude and imprisonment in Egypt. Finally, he raised himself up and becomes a trusted advisor to Pharoah. And, then, one day, out of the blue, his brothers appear. Joseph could treat his brothers with spite, anger or ambivalence, but instead he engages them in a series of tests to see if they have changed. He gives them the benefit of the doubt and, when the brothers prove themselves, Joseph rebuilds their relationship.

At the moment, our world seems especially fraught with tension, enmity and violence. I suspect that Joseph and Pope John XXIII had moments of bleakness. Perhaps, Joseph and Pope John XXIII can be role models for moving beyond despair to repair.

What qualities did the biblical Joseph and Pope John XXIII share?

Vision and optimism: Both men could imagine something better. And they believed that their vision was obtainable. Take Joseph’s dreams. He believes, truly believes, that he can see the future. Allegorically, a person must be able to imagine something better to make it happen.

Spirituality: Both men trusted in their relationship with God. “Human friends can always be found when a person is successful, but in times of trouble they tend to disappear. Not so God, who was with Joseph when he was a slave, when he was in prison and also when he was viceroy” (Torah Sh’lema).

Realism: Neither Joseph nor Pope John XXIII were Polyannas. Joseph could imagine a reconciled relationship with his brothers, but he also knew that, perhaps, they had not changed. He tests them thoroughly before believing the authenticity of their changed ways.

Ability to move on: Joseph could have remained stymied in his anger against his brothers, and nobody would have faulted him. Likewise, Pope John XXIII ascended to the papacy late in life. He was known as affable and unlikely to rock the boat. Some even called him the “accidental pope.”

Yet Pope John XXIII saw himself as a change agent. He was pope for fewer than five years. Yet, he made those years count, and then some.

Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen is rabbi of Beth Chai Jewish Humanist Congregation of Greater Washington. This column originally appeared on Dec. 17, 2015.

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