Shabbat candles: 7:47 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 19:1-20:27
Haftorah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz);
Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 8:53 p.m.
Don’t mistreat strangers, rather be kind to them. This is written in the Torah at least 36 times in one form or another, including in this week’s parshat Kedoshim (Be Holy): “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among, and you should love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” [Leviticus 19:34].
If it is stressed so much it must clearly be of utmost importance. However, in Kedoshim we are also told, once and only once, to love our friends; we don’t need to be told twice. But when it comes to those outside our circle we need to be told, over and over again, to treat them right.
One might think that it is obvious that people such as strangers, widows, and orphans (often mentioned together) need to be treated with extra kindness and that therefore this will come easily and be done often. The Torah, however, understands the way people actually are. When we see someone who is weak we are inclined to take advantage despite our ideals and vision of our best version of ourselves. It is human nature to put ourselves first. When strong people stand in our way we back off, when weak people
are before us we tend to take advantage. We are reminded repeatedly to fight our urge to take the easy road of mistreating the vulnerable stranger and other “others.”
After we’re told not to mistreat the other, but rather to love, there is an add-on: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This seems straightforward; you of all people should naturally have compassion on outsiders because you were once in that position.
However, there may be a different and deeper meaning here. Sometimes in life we think that we understand someone’s difficult situation because we went through something similar. It would seem that this should cause us to be more sympathetic. In fact, the opposite often happens. A person may say to him or herself, “I went through what they went through, and no one helped me, and I made it; now it is their turn.” And someone who has not gone through a similar situation can sometimes actually be kinder than someone who has gone through it and been made bitter. For this psychological reason the Torah tells us to be kind to strangers, even though we were once strangers, too. As time goes on we forget how hard an experience was, as we have grown accustomed to how much easier life has become. So we are warned to fight our urge to be hard on the stranger, thinking that we have earned that right because we went through the school of hard knocks.
The rabbis taught, “Don’t judge your friend till you are in his place” [Pirkei Avot 2:4]. The Sefat Emet explains that this really means to never judge another person. Even if we have gone through something similar, we did not go through it with all of the other’s variables. We will never be in another person’s place and therefore must hold our judgment. Even if we made it through a challenge alone it doesn’t mean that someone else can make it without our help.
It is generally understood that the famous command in Kedoshim, “ve’ahavta le’reachah kamochah” [Lev. 19:18], means “love your friend as your self.” We are told to be ourselves, to be real when we love our friend. This comes easily with dear friends. We are also implored to also do this with people who are weak, the vulnerable outsiders and not simply our friends. The fact that we are asked so many times to be kind to others reflects how much of a struggle it can be. We are not required to be superhuman, rather to be ourselves. Yet we are expected to negotiate with all of our real and human instincts, to go with the flow of some of them, and to rise above others.
We are asked to be who we are and from that space to love others. We are asked to fight the usually subconscious urge to take advantage of those who are weak. We are told to love others with the realization that we are not, never have been, and never will be someone else.
We are urged to love the stranger because we understand — and because we will never understand.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is a teacher and guidance counselor at The Frisch School.