Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism


When Pope John Paul II came to Israelin March 2000, it wasn’t the first time that the highest leader of the Catholic church visited the Holy Land. As early as 1964 Pope Paul VI had put his foot on Israeli soil. Unlike the present pope, he refused to land in BenGurionAirport, rather he visited Jordanfirst and on the fifth of January he made his way from there to then divided Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olivesto Mt.Zion, passing through the Mandelbaum Gate.

The Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Religion of that time was Dr. Shmuel Z. Kahana, whose 6th Yohrtzeit is this Shabbat (30th Sivan). When Kahana showed the pope around MountZion, the pope asked him all of a sudden: “Let me ask you a question. How could the Jews dare to declare Jerusalemthe capitol of the State of Israel? Jerusalembelongs to ALL religions, and it is a holy site which belongs to the whole world, and therefore it has to remain an international city! How can the Jews just claim it for themselves?!” “I’ll explain it to you”, said Kahana, referring to this week’s Torah portion: “The Torah tells us that when Moshe appointed Aharon the High Priest, the Jewish people lamented. ‘Why should Aharon be chosen?’ they asked. Immediately Moshe turned to God and said: ‘Master of the Universe, You commanded me to appoint Aharon; please do a miracle so that I can convince the nation.’ And so God sent an earthquake, Korach and his group were swallowed by the earth – but still the people did not agree to Aharon’s appointment. Then God sent a plague, however the Israelites still argued against Aharon. Finally God commanded Moshe to speak to the sons of Israel, and to get from them twelve rods, one for each tribe. He should write each name on his rod, and write Aharon’s name on the rod of Levi. Moshe should then deposit them in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony. On the next day Moshe went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aharon had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Only now the nation was convinced and the grumbling stopped, and from then on no objection against Aharon’s appointment as High Priest was heard.” (Bamidbar 17, 17-24)

After telling the pope this episode of the fourth book of the Torah, Dr. Kahana took him and his entourage to the observation point on MountZion. He told them: “From here you can see the old city [which was at that time still under Jordanian control] on one side and the new cityof Jerusalemon the other side. The Arab side is desolate and dry. But the Jewish side is blossoming, full of life! You ask who Jerusalembelongs to? Well, let me ask you: When did the Israelites finally accept Aharon as their High Priest? Only after his rod showed buts. Because the sign of life is the indicator that truth is on your side. The same way it works with Jerusalem. The one who can claim that he makes her blossom and brings her to life – only he can call himself her owner.”

The pope was seemingly impressed, and a few weeks after his visit to Jerusalemhe wrote a letter thanking Dr. Kahana for his hospitality. The pope finished the letter of with the sentence: “I’ll never forget what you told me on the observation point on MountZion” (based on the testimony of Dr. Kahana’s daughter).

I am sure there are cynics who would say that if there had been the same amount of investment in East Jerusalem, as there was in its Western counterpart, there wouldn’t have been any difference and the myth of “Jewish blossoming” would be disproved. But maybe there is indeed a meta-physical “rule” behind this physical phenomenon?

The truth is that Dr. Kahana has some serious sources to base himself upon. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a), Rabbi Abba says that there is no bigger sign for the beginning of redemption than the flourishing Holy Land, quoting a Passuk in Yecheskel 36, 8: “But you, O mountains of Israel, you will put forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for they will soon come.”

Rashi, based on the Sifra, comments on the Passuk “And I will bring the land into desolation” (Vayikrah 26, 32) the following: “This is a good dispensation for the Israelites, for the enemies will not find any gratification in their land, since it will be desolate of its inhabitants.”

In his beautiful essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik relates to that point: “The landof Israelcannot be built by just any people or group. Only the Jewish people possess the capacity to transform it into a settled land and to make the desolate waste bloom. This divine promise became a miraculous fact in the history of the landof Israelduring various periods. We must not forget, even for a moment, that the landof Israeldrew the nations of the world – Christian and Muslim alike – to it like a magnet. The medieval Crusades were undertaken for the purpose of conquering the landof Israeland colonizing it with a Christian population. All of the efforts of the crusaders were in vain, and they did not take root in the land. Even the Muslims, who were already in the land, did not succeed in colonizing it properly. It remained a desolate waste. “And your land shall be a desolation.” Even later, in the modern era, when the European nations in the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries settled and colonized entire continents, the land of Israel remained desolate and in a more primitive state than its neighboring Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, and Leba­non… the land of Israel did not betray the people of Israel; she remained faithful to them and during all those years awaited her redeemer.”

This all sounds indeed wonderful, but I am left with one tiny problem (which unfortunately might not be so “tiny”): How does the world, and more importantly: how do WE relate to that incredible phenomenon? Sometimes it seems as if our reaction has not changed since that day Moshe showed the Israelites Aharon’s sprouting rod. Then the Jews saw the most incredible miracle, and what did they do? They just took their own rod and went home!

“Moshe then brought out all the rods from the presence of God to all the sons of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod.” (Bamidbar 17, 24)

Are we today guilty of the same sin: Indifference?