This week, we find ourselves in the book of Deuteronomy, which serves as sort of “recap” of the commandments that Moses shares with the Israelites during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Israelites are currently standing on the east side of the land flowing with milk and honey and Moses is doing everything he can, like an exasperated parent, to remind the Israelites to mind their manners, remember the rules and be sure to write before they cross over into the land that he can’t go into.
One of the rules that Moses reminds the people of is, “You should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). This immediately reminds me of the quote in Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Many commentators have written about the difficulty of legislating love. To me, these commandments are instructing us how to behave and what feelings to cultivate, guiding our actions and our intentions.
The stranger and our neighbor are both “the other,” though to different degrees. The stranger is the radical “other” and the neighbor, we more easily see ourselves in. But to help overcome this radical otherness, we are reminded that we, too, were once strangers and treated as radically other. Each of us needs to draw on our own experiences to remember every day what it feels like to be treated or seen as other. This helps us develop empathy in an ongoing way, and this is how we begin to develop the intentions of loving the other.
It is a very common response to distance oneself from someone we perceive as victim. Cancer patients, victims of a violent crime or people with a disability attest how others, even close friends, distance themselves. It is as if identifying with them reminds us of our own vulnerability, and would cut through the denial of, “This won’t happen to me.” Actively trying to remember a time of our own — personal or collective — victimization is a means of opening our heart and creating the possibility of loving the stranger.
Love comes with responsibilities or an action component if it is to have any meaning. At the very least, it means to treat someone fairly; other aspects of the tradition indicate that it is to insure that the basic needs of the other are met. We need to remember our common humanity to help us live up to our responsibilities in both our day-to-day encounter with others and in our role as members of the larger community. By working to connect with the other, we are fulfilling this week’s Torah command to love the other. When we stretch beyond our own place of comfort, move to a place of vulnerability and love the other by making every effort to seek out people who are alone or who we do not know, we act for ourselves and for community. If each of us does this with one person, imagine the impact we will have collectively! JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and is on the executive board of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.