Whenever I fly into America I undergo a strange mix of emotions. Despite always being pleased about the conclusion of my journey (I’m not the best flyer) I also become nervous as I join the line for foreign passports. Over the last few years I have been to America on a student visa, on a tourist visa and now on a work visa. Each time I had the correct paperwork, and had fulfilled all of the legal requirements, but despite this there was something about the lines at immigration which made me feel slightly uneasy, as though I was doing something wrong. Now part of this can be put down to my overactive imagination and the fact that I can quite often be a nervous person. But with the immigration inspectors, the scanning of fingerprints and eyes, I do think that this is supposed to be a welcome to America with some reservations. And I am sure it is exactly the same for Americans coming to Europe and people travelling all over the world.
Today we define inclusion and exclusion based on the citizenship which you have and the passport which you hold. But there have always been groups with people included and excluded.
In this week’s double Torah portion, as we read through the holiness code we are presented with an eclectic mix of laws and commandments, all theoretically fulfilling the instruction: ‘you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy’ (Leviticus 19:2). In the midst of these commandments the stranger is mentioned. In the first instance the stranger appears to be simply classified alongside the poor, when it states: ‘you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger, I am Adonai your God’ (Leviticus 19:10). The verse reveals an assumption that the situation of the stranger will be like that of a poor person, suggesting that there was limited social and economic mobility for this person. And with the declaration of God’s authority, there is an implication that people might be inclined to ignore this instruction without God’s explicit connection to it.
A little later on God adds an additional commandment in connection with the stranger: ‘And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him’ (Leviticus 19:33). This can be read as suggesting that it would be easy to wrong the stranger, or worse that people are inclined to wrong the stranger. However, it then takes the commandment further: ‘But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God’ (Leviticus 19:34).
We will often talk about the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. However, it is not just your neighbor that we are commanded to love, we are also commanded to love the stranger as yourself. Our neighbor is in all likelihood someone similar to us, but the stranger is someone different, and despite this difference our obligation is the same; our obligation is love.
Today it is easy to judge the stranger, to be afraid of the stranger and to mistrust the stranger; but in our Torah we are given but one instruction to love the stranger. This is not about saying we are all the same, and that there should be no barriers between us, but it does remind us that love can overcome all barriers and divisions.