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Neighbor or stranger?

3 December 2011

It has often been thought that the greatest moral principle of the Bible is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I used to believe so myself. But I have found that there is yet a greater principle: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger—you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or again: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” In the century of the Holocaust these commands echo with unrequited force.

It is easy to love our neighbor. It is a difficult to love the stranger. That is why the Torah commands us only once to love our neighbor, but on thirty-six occasions commands us to love the stranger. A neighbor is one we love because he is like us. A stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like us. That is the Torah’s repeated and most powerful command. I believe it to be the greatest religious truth articulated in the past four thousand years. Throughout history, Jews were the archetypal strangers. Abraham says to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” The Israelites were “strangers” in Egypt. Moses said, on the birth of his first son, “I am a stranger in a strange land.” They were strangers to teach that God loves the stranger. They were different, yet God set them on His love, to teach the dignity of difference.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: Free Press: 2000), 93-94.

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