On a recent Sunday, I was invited to preach at a neighboring Episcopalian church. This church is unusual in that its members are a mixture of English and Spanish speakers. The vast majority of the Spanish speakers are undocumented immigrants and their children. My congregation has been working with this church community to support and, if the need arises, protect our undocumented neighbors.
The first step was clear: we needed to meet them! Our lives travel in parallel lanes, and opportunities to make friends do not naturally arise. So, many members of my synagogue attended the church service, my words were simultaneously translated into Spanish, and following the service we all enjoyed a truly festive pot luck. It was an inter-ethnic feast, with everything from kugel and tzimmes to enchiladas and tamales. Following the meal, a group of the Oaxacan members performed some of their traditional dances, and I led a song. We achieved our initial goal, which was to meet one another. We will move forward from here.
I draw much inspiration and direction from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. Kedoshim contains the most famous and important commandment in the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) Rabbi Akiva famously calls this commandment “klal hagadol batorah” – “the central principal of the Torah.” It is the proverbial Golden Rule that we find in all great moral and spiritual traditions around the world.
But it is not that teaching that inspires me to reach out and connect with our immigrant neighbors. Rather, a bit further on in that chapter in Leviticus, we find this commandment: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your own citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
When we hear “Love your neighbor as yourself” we generally think of “neighbor” as referring to the entire human family. The Torah, however, clearly considers two separate categories of people – neighbors and strangers – both of whom we need to treat with thoughtful care. I find the Torah’s classifications to reflect a much more nuanced and accurate representation of human nature than any contemporary platitude about how we just need to love everyone. For, in fact, we do not automatically treat a stranger the way we treat our neighbor. There is a moral calculus in treating one’s neighbor well: you want your neighbor to treat you well, too. This is a basic social contract among people sharing life in a community. It is in everyone’s self-interest to behave well towards each other. Also, to put it bluntly, everyone prefers to hang out with their friends! The stranger is by definition someone in whom we have no investment. There is no incentive of self-interest to make us want to turn to the stranger, get to know them, or assist them.
Therefore, the Torah insists that when we encounter a stranger, we transcend self-interest and instead practice empathy. To accomplish that, we must be able to identify with the stranger and to imagine what it must feel like to be without power in a land not your own. As we are commanded in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This is very hard to do. The Torah repeats these instructions in various forms more than three dozen times, more than any other commandment. My theory is that the rules that get repeated the most are the ones that people are having trouble following! But the Torah insists that all human beings are made in the Divine image. We are all fundamentally deserving of being treated with dignity, care and respect, including the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee. The Torah commands us repeatedly to grow to this level of awareness.
The genius of Judaism is that the very story we tell about ourselves and our origins as strangers in a strange land is meant to awaken us to the plight of the stranger we encounter in our own land. The Jewish story, if taken to heart, is an exercise in empathy, a humanizing practice. This is why I feel compelled to reach out to the strangers in our midst. And in the process, I turn strangers into neighbors, and perhaps even friends.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and has served as the spiritual leader of Kehillat Lev Shalem in Woodstock, New York for the past 30 years. His second book, Turn It and Turn It: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, will be published this fall.