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Loving the Stranger

Updated: May 9, 2023


Torah Portion: Parashat Emor ("Say, Speak!")

Shabbat: May 6, 2023 Iyyar 15, 5783

New Covenant: 1 Pet. 2:4-10


Priestly Blessing

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26


Our Torah portion this week (Emor) tells the disturbing story of a man who was executed for blasphemy (see Lev. 24:10-16). We are told that two people, one of whom was described simply as "an Israelite man," and the other the "son of an Israelite woman" named Shelomit (שְׁלמִית), got into a fight in the middle of the camp. During the fight, the son of the Israelite woman "blasphemed" God's Name and cursed. As a result, the man was brought to Moses who then asked God what was to be done. The LORD answered by commanding that those who heard the man blaspheme should personally lay their hands on his head and then the entire community was to stone the man to death...

The sages wonder what might have drove this man to revile God's Name, and they first note that since he was a son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman, he was essentially a Jew without a tribe. Moreover, since the right to inherit derived from the father, this man would have had no hope of inheritance in the promised land, no "place" among the people of God... Shelomit was from the tribe of Dan, and the midrash says that her son had appealed to the tribal leaders to provide him with a sense of identity and belonging. Sadly, he was refused, and his hurt and anger at being treated as an outsider eventually led to the fight "in the middle of the camp." Some of the sages place the blame for this man's death on those who refused to help him, since they refused to make him feel like a "member of the tribe." These people should have welcomed him as a brother and remembered their hardship as slaves and strangers in Egypt. Because of their hardness of heart, however, the man was abandoned, and this eventually led to his self-destructive actions. The sages note that the LORD required that the accusers were to first lay hands on this "unnamed man" to make them confront the fact that they were also responsible for his death.

Did you know that one of the most frequently occurring commandments is for the Jew to love the stranger? The commandment is repeated in various forms over 30 times in the Jewish Scriptures, for instance "You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18); "You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 19:34); "Love the stranger, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19); "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 22:21); "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong" (Lev. 19:33); "Do not oppress the stranger" (Zech. 7:10); "Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due the stranger" (Deut. 24:19); "The stranger shall be as the native born children of Israel among you" (Ezek. 47:22), and so on. Clearly the LORD does not want people to feel ostracized, excluded, out of place, or otherwise left out of His providential and loving plans... Indeed, the message of the universal love of God is at the heart of the gospel itself, harkening back to God's earliest promises to redeem humanity and restore paradise lost. "Religion," tribalism, prejudice, ethnic pride, and so on, are anathema to the Kingdom of God.

Jewish tradition says that King David was born on Shavuot, the holiday of shtei ha-lechem, the "two loaves" that prophetically foretold of the advent of the "one new man" (Eph. 2:14-22) and of the mysterious inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant promises of God (Eph. 3:6). God has a great compassion for the outsider, for the lost, and for those who are without inheritance in this world. During Shavuot it is customary to read the Book of Ruth which tells the story about redeeming love and the advent of King David. Recall that King David was a direct descendant of Ruth, who as a Moabitess was an outsider and "stranger" to the promises of God (Ruth 4:17). Despite being part of an despised and rejected group of people (see Deut. 23:3), Ruth overcame the law's demand by believing in the love and acceptance of a redeemer of Israel (Ruth 3:9). Ruth's great grandson was named David (דָוִד), meaning "beloved," which has the same numerical value as the word "hand" (יָד). It is no wonder that the LORD chose David to represent God's extended hand of love for the stranger, for the convert, for the outsider, the leper, and the lost, since his descendant Yeshua the Messiah came to love and redeem the entire world by means of His outstretched hand. "Blessed be the Name of the LORD."

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matt. 25:35). We are commanded (i.e., blessed) to practice ahavat ha'geir (אהבת הגר), the "love of the stranger." This means showing compassion and empathy to an "outsider" who may question their worth and place in your midst... On a somewhat deeper level, the duty to "love the stranger" applies not only to someone whom we regard as an "outsider," but more radically to the "stranger within ourselves," that is, to those aspects of ourselves we censor, deny, or reject. Self-hatred is a spiritual dead-end, chaverim.... Like the prodigal son, we have to "come to ourselves" to return home (Luke 15:17), yet we can't know that we are unconditionally loved until we venture complete disclosure and seek acceptance - despite the mess of our lives. That is the great risk of trusting in God's love for your soul. Those parts of ourselves that we "hide" need to be brought to the light, healed, and reconciled. After all, if we don't find healing for our self-rejection and pain, how can we hope to love and accept others? Dear Lord, deliver us from the torment of self-hatred, in the Name and passion of your love, amen.

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