Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger
A resource for talking about refugees and immigration in Torah
We say that caring for the stranger is mentioned 36 times in Torah, more than any other mitzvah. It's actually many more than 36 times! Download this 6-page resource and see for yourself: it is by far the most frequently mentioned mitzvah category in the whole Torah. The resource sheets include every single verse from Tanakh dealing with the stranger as well as context, and a selection from midrash and Jewish thinkers ancient and modern, on the stranger, refugees, and universal human dignity.
You can also download a brief PowerPoint on loving the stranger that uses just seven of the quotes from the resource packet. Good for a 10-15 minute Zoom presentation (or download a PDF of the PowerPoint).In this Shmita year of 5782 (2021-2022), let's also pay attention to the fact that commandments to care for the stranger in Exodus 23 bracket the commandment to observe the Shmita year:
9 And you shall not oppress/tilchatz a stranger – and you have known the soul/nefesh of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 10 Six years you may sow your land and gather in her produce. 11 But in the seventh [year] you shall release her and let it go; and the poor of your people will eat, and what they leave over, the beasts of the field will eat. So shall you do to your vineyard [and] to your olive [grove]. 12 Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey will rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger will be re-ensouled/vayinafeish.We also learn in Leviticus 25 that we should see ourselves as strangers in the land, which means, among other things, that we must not lord it over other people, or over the land.
Torah is not just a simplistic recapitulation of liberal values. We like to take the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" as one of the moral foundations of universal human dignity. But the Torah divides love into two commandments; the complementary commandment says, "the stranger who sojourns with you...you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Neither is universal by itself, which is why both are needed. Here are the verses:
1. Lev 19:18: You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; and you shall love your fellow/friend/rei’ekha (usually translated: ‘neighbor’) like yourself/kamokha. I am YHVH.
2. Lev 19:34: Like a native/citizen/ezrach from among you shall be the stranger who sojourns with you / hager hagar itchem for you, and you shall love him as yourself/kamokha; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.
A fundamental question that motivated me to create this resource is, Why are there two separate commands to love in Leviticus 19, one to love the friend and one to love the stranger? Why not one commandment to love all humanity?
Let's assume that the Torah is giving us the best possible foundation for a moral and humanistic ethic. What necessitates this doubling of the mitzvah, in which the stranger is both like the neighbor and unlike the neighbor? Why is that a better foundation than just saying "love every fellow human being as yourself"?
The Torah seems to ask us to look inside ourselves to find what we have in common with a stranger whom we do not know: we know what it is like to feel like a stranger. Reflecting on that can enable us to find common ground with almost any person. The Torah requires us to go one level of reflection deeper, beyond how we feel about ourselves, beyond what might be instinctual feelings, to find the level at which we are the same.
I put together this text study resource, "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger" including all the verses that mention the stranger, to help people explore these questions. I finished the first version shared here in time for National Refugee Shabbat October 19, 2018, parshat Lekh L'kha, where Avram declares himself ger v'toshav, a stranger and sojourner.
The most recent version tweaks the translation of Deut. 24:17, where the verse literally states, "You will not bend justice for the orphan stranger" -- to me "orphan stranger" suggests the children locked in cages who have been deprived of their parents by ICE, may it and this U.S. administration's reign of terror against immigrants be abolished.
All later versions of this resource included relevant verses from the Prophets (most esp. Jeremiah 7), and reference to all 92 verses in which ger/stranger appears, organized by themes and significance.
The most important sections from Torah come first and are quoted at length (Exodus 22, 23, Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 10, 16. 24, 26). I also sifted through all 40+ Sefaria text study sheets on immigrants to include some of the best examples of the spectrum of rabbinic texts and commentaries.
Download the pdf or the doc file of "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger":
You can also click here to download an extraordinary set of seven texts on tikkun olam from all periods of Jewish thought that universalize the commandment to love to all humanity. This approach is different from what is found in the 6-page resource, which focuses on distinguishing loving the stranger and loving the neighbor.
I hope you will find this resource on "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger" to be a treasure. It makes it easy for anyone to verify that in fact there are many many more than 36 passages that talk about caring for the stranger in Torah. And it carefully distinguishes which texts may deal with the ger tzedek (convert) vs. the ger toshav (immigrant/refugee). I believe it is the most detailed and complete resource on the ger in Tanakh available online. The one thing this resource does not have is the Hebrew. Most folks will probably use it in a synagogue setting where they will have chumashim or Tanakhs that include Hebrew. You can download the resource and change/add whatever you like. Please include title, author, and url for the original resource, then share it in whatever manner works for you.
This resource will be invaluable if you're a rabbi or educator, or anyone who wants guidance for developing a text study class. It's also an excellent resource for anyone simply wanting to understand the wide range of Jewish texts dealing with issues related to refugees and immigrants.
One thing about the Torah's treatment of the stranger is painfully clear: any policies or politicians that label refugees, immigrants, or asylum seekers as interlopers, criminals, or even worse "an infestation" (as some Israeli politicians have labeled African asylum seekers) are in direct opposition to Torah and to what Judaism teaches. The bottom line is that the Torah doesn't tell us how many refugees to bring in. But it does teach us without ambiguity or room for disagreement that it is a grave sin to treat immigrants and refugees -- whatever their documented status may be -- as anything less than human, to do things to make their lives miserable so that other refugees won't come, to incite racism and hatred.
More than a year ago, the week following National Refugee Shabbat, eleven Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, explicitly in response to National Refugee Shabbat. Horrors against refugees continued unabated under Trump, perpetrated by ICE, the Border Patrol, and the U.S. administration. Imprisoned asylum seekers were held in what are undeniably concentration camps (remember that concentration camps existed before the Shoah and that during the Shoah, there was a distinction between concentration camps and death camps). The Biden administration promises new pro-immigrant policies and vision. But we need to continue to stick our necks out to support refugees and immigrants. This is at the core of the Jewish mission.
There is room to debate about specific policies, but not to debate about people's humanity. Anyone disagreeing with that has no right to claim that they speak for Judaism, the Bible, or the Jewish people, or for what is justice or God's will. I'm thinking for example of Franklin Graham, who shamed his father Rev. Billy Graham when when he lied extravagantly about the Torah and claimed it had nothing to say about immigration. Even Franklin had enough of a heart to come out in opposition to separating children from their parents at the border. Those children still number in the hundreds, despite concerted efforts under the Biden administration to make amends.