On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Acharei Mot and Kedoshim - "Loving the Stranger" Isn't Always Intuitive

Let's talk about love: Torah talks about three kinds of love - and in fact, the phrase “love the stranger” appears in the Torah 36 times. Why is it written so often? Who is "the stranger," anyway? And who might be the strangers in our own lives? In this episode, which originally aired in April 2017, Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about what it means to move from strangeness to equality to, finally, closeness and love.


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we are re-airing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits, if you will. This week, we're going back to May 1, 2017, when Rabbi Jacobs talked about the parshiyot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, teaching us about what it means to really love the stranger.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on two parshiyot, the portions Acharei Mot and Kedoshim from the middle, slightly later into the book of Leviticus. And I'd love to just focus our attention today on one chapter in the parashah Kedoshim. It's the chapter that everybody would love to focus on, chapter 19, also known by biblical scholars as the holiness code.

We have, in chapter 19, a whole host of commandments. Some are ritual. Some are moral. Others are social commandments. What's kind of amazing is they're just sort of interspersed, reminding us somehow that a life of spiritual depth, a life of holiness includes not only ritual but social justice, not only social justice but some ritual underpinnings. And it comes into a beautiful whole.

But I'd like to really focus in on one particular biblical command. And that is to love. In the Torah, we're commanded to love three different ways. First, we're commanded to love God. And then in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, we're commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. Not such a tricky commandment, seemingly. Although, actually, not such a layup, as we would say in basketball terms.

And then the third way that we're commanded to love is to love the stranger. The commandment to love the stranger, we have 36 times. In fact, there may even be more than 36, depending on how you count. And it makes us pause and say, what is it about the commandment to love the stranger that needs so many reinforcements?

And I think that we could come to an awareness that when we love our neighbors, by and large, they're people we know, maybe people like ourselves. But the Torah knows that there's something really challenging about moving that stranger not to someone you see, not someone you maybe relate to at a distance, but can you move that interaction, that relationship into a place of love? And therefore, we don't have 36 times that the Torah tells us to love God. That's pretty straightforward. We don't have 36 times where the Torah tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But we do have 36 commands to love the stranger as we love ourselves and as we shape holy community. I think the analogy would be is if I'm driving along the highway, and there is a sign every five feet that says 60 miles per hour, 60, and it goes one after another, they're trying to remind me to do something that I'm not doing intuitively. And so too with the 37 commands to love the stranger. If it were so obvious or so simple, you would only have to say it once.

But there's something in human experience that makes it incredibly difficult to love the stranger. Sometimes it's difficult just to relate to the stranger. So 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's the first level of obligation. Don't wrong that stranger.

Then the next verse, 34, says, the stranger resides with you, shall be to you as one of your citizens. Treat that person equally. So don't wrong them. Treat them equally. And then it moves to, you shall love him as yourself. Why? Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I, the eternal, am your God.

So it's asking us to transform someone from a stranger into an equal, to take someone who is not known and to treat them as part of one's circle. Now the differentiation is that for one's neighbor, you don't have to have so many reminders because your neighbor is someone who's more like you. Probably votes like you. Maybe believes like you. Maybe practices their religion like you. So you don't have to be so commanded there. It's natural to like, to treat, and even to love those who are like you.

But this individual who is not like you, that's where the Torah focuses its energy. And I think for all of us as we struggle with who are those strangers in our world, are they immigrants? Are they refugees? If we're in some setting, are they the people in our workplace who speak a different language, come from a different ethnicity, a different background? They're all different ways in which we could identify the stranger. But the Torah has only one obligation. And that is to love that stranger.

So I think of a time I was working in a homeless shelter a number of years ago. It was in a synagogue. And it was a brutally cold night. And our eight homeless guests arrived. And we asked them to sign in to there's a log book, so we could just know who was there.

And I looked in that log book to see if anyone had signed in, and all I saw were eight 12-digit numbers written down in a row. So I sat down at the dinner table as they were enjoying a delicious, warm meal. And I said we asked you to sign in. We'd like to just know your names.

And when you signed in, you all wrote down these numbers. They said, well, those are our numbers for social service. And I said, well, that may be true. But here, we'd like to know you by your name. And here's my name. My name is Rick.

And it was stunning. We were trying to, in that moment, turn these strangers into not friends but equals, people of human dignity and decency. And how is it that we can transform those strangers into people with whom we share our lives? And the Torah reminds us because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I don't know about you, but that was a long time ago. And I had forgotten what it was like to be a stranger in Egypt. But I bet you every one of us has been a stranger somewhere, maybe in a foreign country when we're visiting. Maybe we were new to a organization or a community, and we felt a bit other. We felt a bit alien. Or maybe we felt a bit on the outskirts. And that person who came and expressed a sense of welcome, who helped break through that, in a sense, that persona of stranger, brought us into the embrace of community was transformational.

And I know there are a lot of laws and policies and bills before Congress and all the things that we sometimes fill the discussion about refugees and strangers. But the Torah makes it so much more elemental. It's not so complicated. It's about people. And all of the people that we share the world with are part of God's family.

So I give you one final reflection. It's from a wonderful book by Rachel Naomi Remen called Kitchen Table Wisdom. It's a story about a cancer group that she was leading. And her goal was to really open everyone to be much more responsive one to the other.

But there was this one individual named Itzhak. He was a kind of Eastern European immigrant. And he didn't go for all this lovey dovey, sharing, caring, all this stuff. And he kind of sat back and didn't participate.

And finally, one day, he came to the group and said he had had a dream and a revelation. And in that dream, God had spoken to him and said, you know, Itzhak, what's all this about the stranger and the embrace and the warmth? And God said, very simply, Itzhak, in my world, there are no strangers.

To God, we aren't strangers. We're all God's children. There's an equality. There's a decency. There's a commonality that we lose. So when we continue to debate refugees, strangers, immigrants, whatever word we're using, let's use the Torah's terminology. And our obligation is, of course, not to wrong such 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. And when we can remember that, not only does our world change, the whole world changes.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat.