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Love Your Neighbor vs. Love the Stranger

02/19/2021 10:19:07 AM


Can hate be a virtue? Does hate always have a deleterious effect, or can it be a constructive soul practice on occasion?  I invite you to join me tonight as I speak to whether hate can be a good thing for humans to practice.

This question arose for me as I attended a zoom lecture held by the American Jewish Archives entitled: “Confronting Hate in a Broken World”. 

While tonight I will be discussing the virtue of hate, I would like to share another teaching with you for this week’s Shabbat to Shabbat that I gained from the talk.  One of the speakers, Dr. Georgette Bennett, pointed out that the Torah uses the phrase, “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) only once.  By contrast it states that we should “love the stranger” 36 times.  From this discrepancy, Dr. Bennett concluded that it is easier to love those who are similar to us, our neighbors, than it is to love those who are different from us, the stranger.

Dr. Bennett’s words are important as we attempt to navigate a world of polarized opinions and discussions.  Throughout the course of our lives, all of our actions, thoughts, and even inaction play a role in shaping our souls. Some of these soul-shaping acts are easier for us to embrace than others.  One such easier path of soul-shaping is to love and embrace those who fit into our learned paradigms of behavior. 

A stranger with different behaviors, opinions and approaches, on the other hand, can be unpleasant in the challenges their behavior raises in shaping our souls.  The stranger requires that we embrace adjustment, patience, tolerance and understanding. It is the difference between doing an exercise we enjoy versus one that forces us to use muscles that are weak.

It is hard work to love the stranger sometimes. It is so hard that the Torah goes out of its way to remind us about it 36 times.  The 36 times is not to reproach us, but rather to encourage us.  Our tradition wants us to know that when we are patient and understanding with those who are different, God acknowledges its difficulty, but also reminds us that there is a reward to be had.   

The stranger helps us become better sometimes, not by appealing to our strongest traits, but by making us work on those traits that are hardest for us.  For sure our neighbors can challenge us as well, but they are ever-present and require dealing with on a daily basis.  The stranger in many ways can be avoided.  However, our tradition tells us not to avoid the stranger but to love the stranger the same as should love our neighbor.  We often have to put in work to love our neighbors.  How much more so then should we put in the work to love the stranger?  When we work at loving the stranger, we are not only practicing tikkun olam, but we are bringing a greater love into the world by being accepting of the other, which in the end enables our souls to grow in dynamic ways.

Sat, March 6 2021 22 Adar 5781