I’d like to talk to you about love. It’s a conversation in which I’m always ready to engage. For 40 years, I’ve talked to my congregational children about being loving, caring toward one another, to new students, to those who seem to be on the outside of the group. The phrase “love the stranger” appears in the Torah at least 36 times. Why is it written so often? Who is “the stranger? “Who might be the strangers in our own lives? In our world today, with all the strife that continues, we need to ask ourselves, how can we better understand how to move from strangeness to equality to, finally, closeness and love. This week we have Acharei Mot- Kedoshim – and my favorite, chapter 19 in Kedoshim, known by biblical scholars as the holiness code.
There is a whole host of commandments. Some are ritual and some are moral while others are social. They’re interspersed throughout the parasha, reminding us somehow that a life of holiness includes not only ritual but social justice, and social justice with some ritual underpinnings.
What are the key laws of our holiness code?
We are to show reverence for father and mother and love for our neighbors.
We are instructed not to reap from the crops at the edges of our fields but rather allow the vulnerable to gather from those gleanings.
We are reminded not to steal or deal dishonestly, act fraudulently, or withhold a laborers’ wages.
We are forbidden from insulting the deaf, placing stumbling blocks before the blind.
We are instructed to withhold unfair judgments. Don’t show deference to the rich or favor the poor.
We are told not to profit by the blood spilling in your streets. And lo tisnah et achicha bilvavecha, do not hate your brother in your heart.
It all comes together into an amazing, powerful whole.
In Torah, we’re commanded to love three different ways. First, we’re commanded to love God, and then we’re commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka’mocha.” And finally, we’re commanded to love the stranger. God commands us to love all human beings.
What is it about the commandment to love the stranger that needs so many reinforcements? When we love our neighbors, by and large, they’re people we know, maybe people like ourselves. But the Torah knows that there is something really challenging about moving that stranger, not to someone we see, or maybe relate to at a distance, but can we move that interaction, that relationship into a place that we call love?
It’s not necessarily intuitive. There is something in human experience that makes it difficult to love the stranger. Sometimes it’s a challenge just to relate. Therefore, in the book of Leviticus, we’re told not only that we’re supposed to love, but it says, when a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. That is the first level of obligation. And then it moves to, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
We are being asked to transform someone from a stranger into an equal, to take someone who is not known and to treat him/her as part of one’s circle. We don’t require many reminders for our neighbors for they are people who are more like us, perhaps believes like us. It’s natural to like and to feel more comfortable with people who seem to be similar to ourselves.
But this individual who is not like us, that is where Torah focuses its energy. Who are those strangers in our world, Are they immigrants? Are they refugees? Are they people of color? Are they people who are marginalized? If we’re in a particular setting, are they the people in our workplace who are a different ethnicity, a different background? Torah tells us our obligations. And that is to love that stranger and “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka’mocha.” Love your neighbor as yourself.
The sages acknowledge that it is difficult to understand this law. When asked to summarize the entire Torah, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is distasteful to you, do not do to another person. The rest is commentary; now go and study.”
Some interpret this admonition in a positive sense: “Want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.” That seems to be easier for many to understand and simpler to achieve. We all want safety, security, good health, decent housing, and productive and meaningful work. We all want our children to have a good education and a chance to reach their potential. We all want to live in a community that helps us achieve these reasonable goals.
Torah reminds us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and although it is not in our memory bank, every one of us has been a stranger somewhere, perhaps in a foreign country when we traveled or, maybe we were new to an organization or a community, and we felt a bit other, a bit on the outskirts. And then that person came along and expressed a sense of warm welcome and helped lessen that sense of stranger; that person brought us into the embrace of community and made that moment a God moment, an “extraordinary moment.”
Oh, if we can just embrace the belief that to God, we are not strangers, that we are all created in the image of God, regardless of our ethnicity, our race, our color. All of life is about relationships. We cannot love our neighbors or the stranger unless we listen to them. What do they want? What do they need? If we want to fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we must enter into a relationship with them.
Torah teaches us to know that all lives matter. Kedoshim tiheyu, all have the possibility to do blessing or curse, to choose life or death. Judaism commands us that our highest obligation and most constructive act is to protect life, to save lives, and to give honor to life.
I read a beautiful commentary by Rabbi Rick Jacobs and he shared, “When we continue to debate on the topic of refugees, strangers, immigrants, whatever word we are using, perhaps we need to try and use Torah’s terminology. Our obligation is, of course, not to wrong people, not to treat them in less than equal ways, but even to extend ourselves, to break through, to establish the common humanity, the common goodness, and even that place of love. When we can remember that, not only does our world change, the whole world changes.”
As we pray each Shabbat, help us to lie down in peace, O God, and to rise up once more to life renewed.