Why ‘stranger’ isn’t a dirty word

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This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1–20:27.

This week, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which both focus on the idea that holiness is action that we take with regard to other people. In Kedoshim we read, “And if a stranger lives with you in your land, do not wrong him. The stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).


The Lutzker Rav (Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin) commented, “Do not say to the non-Jew that the land of Israel is only for Jews, as do the extremists in each land. The land of Israel was given to Abraham, and he became ‘the father of a multitude of nations.’…Thus the Torah tells us ‘you shall not wrong him’ by claiming that he is ‘in your land,’ that he lives in a land which does not belong to him.”

The famous talmudic story of “the oven of Akhnai” ends with the world nearly destroyed because of the expulsion of one rabbi by the majority due to their refusal to compromise. The beginning of that section — affirming the principle of our portion, reads, “Rav Hisda said: All gates are locked, excepting the gates [through which pass the cries of] ona’ah — wrong” This is the same word for wrong used in our verse.

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It is far too common for nations to take the side of the majority: to expel the stranger, to demand “this country is for us, and we have a right to protect what is ours!” This is what the Mishnah (Avot 5:10) calls “the trait of Sodom” — that is to say, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.”

The message of the Torah is different. Not only must we accept those who are different, but we must come to understand the stranger — for she is like us, running from oppression or poverty in her own land — and not only accept her, but to welcome her. The Torah doesn’t only obligate us to treat her like one born among us, but to love her — as it says in Exodus 23:9, “for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Rabbi Alana Suskin is managing editor of Jewschool.com.

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