The sparkling blue waters, olive trees dotting the seaside hills, and quaint fishing village would have made a great postcard, were it not for the perilously overstuffed black rafts, filled with exhausted, sick, wet refugees, dotting the sea. When the rafts crashed on the rocky shores, lines of hungry, tired, and wet men, women, and children trudged up the beach to the refugee camp. This was the island of Lesvos, Greece, when I was there this past Thanksgiving, and this is still Lesvos today. As a rabbi, I was there to help, to witness, but most importantly for me, to fulfill a biblical command.
Judaism is a religion of obligation—of trying to actualize commands, what we call mitzvot, that bind us to God and bring God's presence into this world.
My tradition teaches that there are 613 of these laws, and they can all be found in the Torah, the five books of Moses. Some of the laws appear once, some appear a few times, but just one stands out from all the others. It's a law repeated so many times that it borders on a divine obsession, a law that according to the sages of the Talmud appears at least thirty-six times in the Torah! The law?
Love the Stranger.
Why does the Torah hammer this command home, over and over again, way beyond the count of any other? Why this insistence?
Perhaps this repetition emerges from biblical trauma. The children of Israel experienced two hundred years of oppression, slavery, and genocide in ancient Egypt followed by forty years of vulnerability, struggle, and fear in an unforgiving desert.
Perhaps it comes from knowledge. The Torah says several times to not oppress the stranger, because you know the soul of the stranger. This knowing is not just embedded in our sacred texts and stories, it is in our family stories. In my family, we were refugees fleeing from murderous pogroms, and fleeing from the Holocaust.
Or perhaps the command to love the stranger needs to be repeated, more than any other command, because loving the stranger can be incredibly hard. It's just so easy to not love the stranger when we have our own needs and concerns to worry about. Conversely, the Torah offers this famous and parallel command only once: love your neighbor as yourself. Why? Because it's much easier. There's a lot more incentive to loving a neighbor than loving a stranger. Our neighbors often look more like us, raise their children like us, pray or don't pray like us. In fact, far too often we are incentivized, goaded, and made fearful of a stranger instead of being encouraged to love one, for political reasons by those who profit from fear.
For anyone who takes the Bible seriously, loving the stranger is impossible to ignore. Whether we are Christian or Jews, Orthodox or liberal, when the Bible says something at least thirty-six times that directly speaks to the conditions of our world today, it should keep us awake at night.
It's why this past Thanksgiving, I tried to fulfill this command in a small way by meeting refugees as they landed on the shores of Greece. There, I witnessed the panic of separated family members, the despair at all of one's possessions lost at sea. We helped warm, clothe, and comfort hundreds of crying, shivering children. Together with volunteers from across the globe, I lifted a woman my grandmother's age out of the bottom of a boat, and then assembled her waterlogged wheelchair so she could be wheeled up the beach.
Through my body I tried to physically embody this love we are commanded to show, and through my leadership as a rabbi, I have tried to raise consciousness of this plight and feelings of love, yes love, from my community and from faith communities across the U.S., for these huddled masses.
America is of course not obligated to follow the biblical law, but for a country with so many millions who profess to live lives with faith, how can we stay silent as this refugee crisis continues to unfold? How can we sleep soundly when so many children are sleeping in bombed-out homes in Syria and railroad stations in Europe, or, never making it that far, they remain at the bottom of the sea? How can we sit idly by while the U.S. has admitted fewer than 5,000 of the millions of Syrian refugees?
Loving the stranger is not easy and taking care of one's own needs for safety and security is also a sacred duty. That's why global coordination, deep screening, and background checks are already a vital part of taking in refugees. But a life, or a nation that strives to live by divine teachings, does not begin and end with only its own needs and self. That's exactly why I believe God has to tell us to love the stranger over and over again. The lives of millions of refugees, and the soul of our nation, depend on it.