Strangers and Neighbours

This blog post comes from Rabbi Willy Wolff, written in 2006 for ‘Written All Over Our History – A Yom Limmud for Ester Gluck’ exploring Jewish responsibility towards refugees.

One commandment in the Torah seems uncannily to have been almost written with Ester in mind. For she observed it bechol levavah, with all her great heart, oovechol nufshah, with all her rich soul, oovechol me’odah, and with all her considerable might. It is to be found in the 33rd and 34th verses of the 19th chapter of the third Book of Moses, the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. And it commands: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill treat that stranger. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love that stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Eternal Your God.” On which Rashi comments in three words: “Elloheycha Ve’Ellohav Anni – I am Your God and his God.”

Full stop – yes and no. For in one way or another this commandment to love the stranger is repeated throughout the Torah some 36 times. While the commandment that came 15 verses before, to love your neighbour as yourself, stands there just once.

That immediately raises two questions for me. Why the prolific repetition of the commandment to love the “stranger”, while the Torah is content to leave the “neighbour” to just one commandment? In ancient times, as today, things are repeated when the need for such repetition is perceived, for it was then, as it is now, harder to love the stranger than the neighbour. Such is the nature of the beast that we call human beings. I know we can have almighty rows with neighbour, and we all know that some pretty bizarre and unhappy cases of neighbourly feuding have landed before the British courts and in the media. But on the whole, the neighbour has the comfort of familiarity. Personally I have been blessed with neighbours who were wonderful to me, who got up at three o’clock one winter morning to see what was wrong in my bungalow because they saw a light there, and knew I was not there. But a stranger is so much more difficult to understand. A stranger raises suspicions and in ancient times, as today, a host of prejudices. And the primeval question: friend or foe? Then as now, we need that commandment to love that stranger, or in today’s parlance, the migrant and asylum seeker, to be drummed into us daily.

Given that need, my second question is why that second commandment to love the stranger as ourselves has received so much less focus in rabbinic teaching than the commandment to love the neighbour as yourself. The rabbis after all made that commandment, in the words of Rabbi Akiva, Ze K’lal Gadol Batorah – this is the great principle of Torah. The reason, I suggest, is that in early rabbinic times, say from the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE and the accompanying loss of the last vestiges of autonomy in ancient Palestine, until the years 500 or 600 CE, we had lost our homeland and with it, the role of host nation. And for the next the next 1878 years we were the strangers wherever we went, whether in the comparative freedom of Babylon, or the ghettoes of Europe. Just as the rabbis spent little time on the laws of warfare – because from the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE until the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, Jews had no occasion to fight a war – so they spent little time on the law to love the stranger because they saw no early practical application for it in the condition of their people.

But the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the beginning in the 1960s of a migration of people across the globe on a scale never before witnessed in human history – because never before possible in human history – have made that commandment one of the most relevant to our present society, and one of the most urgent that the Torah gives us. And it brings back to our attention the two reasons given for it: the divine authority, I am the Eternal Your God – your God and his God, but also “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And that reminder runs as a refrain throughout the law making of the Torah, throughout the Tenach and rabbinic literature.

For it is the basis of all Jewish morality. If you want to know what to do in any situation, just remember what it was like when YOU were in that situation. And if you were never in that situation, then either ask others who were – and in the case of the stranger, many of us need do no more than ask our parents or our grandparents – or put yourself, no in the shoes of the others, but underneath their skin to find out what it is like before you decide on your action and your attitude.

Or, as Hillel put it when he was so memorably sought to give concrete form to the commandment to love your neighbour: “Do not do unto others, what you do not wish them to do unto you.”

Ester in her adult life gave the most concrete, human-contact form to the commandment to love the stranger. With that she blessed our needy society so abundantly. And so can we bless this society for every moment that we follow her example.