THE BLOG
03/14/2013 10:50 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

White Smoke, Clouds of Glory and the Call of the Lowly

The new pope opened with a joke. Not so much a kneeslapper, just a lighthearted, self-deprecating reference to his brother Cardinals needing to go to ends of the Earth to find a new Bishop for Rome. "But," he continued, "Here we are..." With that Argentinian born Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, made his first address as pope, the first pontiff from the Americas, the first from the service oriented order of Jesuits, and the first to take his name from St. Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis' unpretentious, personal and inclusive words contrasted with the maximal pomp and secrecy as white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel signaling that the College of Cardinals had elected one of their own to be what faithful Catholics regard as a conduit of Divine will. There are of course more questions than answers about what this new pontificate will mean for Catholics and for those beyond the church. Who this pope is and will become goes well beyond this opening speech and his well attested reputation for eschewing the trappings of luxury and devoting energy and passion for the poor. Still, the motto he chose for his Archdiocese is powerful: miserando atque eligendo -- "lowly, but chosen."

While yet again this week passes with no pope elected in the Jewish community, the motto of the new Holy Father is echoed in our weekly Torah reading and provides a profound lesson for all fellow seekers of purpose and meaning. After the spectacle of the building of the mishkan, the mobile sanctuary overlaid in precious metals and fine materials and covered by the Clouds of Glory, this week the Book of Leviticus opens by telling us that Moses was called and G*d spoke to him from the tent of meeting. Not only does the Divine name not appear in the first part of the verse, but the alef , the final letter in the word vayikra ("called") is written smaller than every other letter in the Torah. Tradition tells us this speaks to Moses humility, but the message goes beyond the smallness of the letter: Without the final alef the word "called" becomes vayikar "chanced upon." For Moses, the most elevated of all Jewish leaders, the difference between being chosen by G*d and simply being chanced upon was as easy to miss as the silently pronounced alef, written very small. While he was inspired by and answered the call to leadership, he strived to see his call as personal to him and not a mark of a relationship with G*d more vaunted than others.

As an archbishop in Buenos Aries, Pope Francis had the opportunity to participate in a Rosh Hashanah service celebrating the Jewish New Year at which we focus on teshuva, the reflection on our mistakes of the past year, and the return to the wholeness of our better selves. Addressing the congregation, the Archbishop said that he was "like a pilgrim, together with my Elder Brothers and Sisters ... that we are a people on a journey ... and must look at God and let God look at us, to examine our heart ... and to ask ourselves if we are walking blamelessly. ... In the end we are asked not to hide these, our errors, this meanness, this sin in its totality ... but to place them in front of ... that Lord who forgives and is patient."

Like Moses, on that occasion, he saw himself not through the eyes of his office, but included himself as a flawed, quite fallible person who nonetheless found himself called to account before G*d. Perhaps in the straightforward words cited above, "Here we are" is his hineni, the "Here I am" that signals in our tradition the humility with which we address G*d during the Days of Awe. More importantly, perhaps he will help inspire others to find, in their own way, their own small alef and discover that they too are worthy of being called.