Loving the Stranger / Loving the Vulnerable Among Us

Acharey Mot – Kedoshim D’var Torah      April 23, 2010

Shabbat shalom. This Shabbat we continue our journey through the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, or Leviticus in English. We actually read from two Torah portions this Sabbath. The first is called Acharey Mot, and the second is called Kedoshim.

Acharei Mot presents an account of the laws of Yom Kippur, as well as a list of laws regarding sexual relationships. Kedoshim offers us a list of laws that define which behaviors are considered holy – kadosh – and which are not. It’s a mixture of ethical and ritual laws.

Perhaps the most famous part of Kedoshim is Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Chapter 19 happens to be right at the mid-point of the Torah, and many commentators have described it as the heart of the Torah. It begins with God telling the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. And then the Torah goes on to present a list of mitzvot – commandments.

farmworkersThe list includes the foundations of a universal human ethics. Honor your parents. Don’t steal or make a false oath. If you’re a farmer, leave the corners of your fields un-harvested so the poor and the needy can anonymously come glean and avoid both starvation and the embarrassment of begging for food.

If you hire a day-laborer, pay him or her promptly for their work, the same day. In other words, don’t take advantage of their desperate economic situation or essentially enslave them by withholding their wages for long stretches so that you can force them to stay under your employ.

Don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind – in other words, don’t amuse yourself at the expense of another’s difference of ability. The phrase “stand up before the aged” is also found in this chapter, and the exact words that the Torah uses for this commandment are the words you’ll see posted on Israeli buses above the seats closest to the bus’s doors.

This is the section of Torah that says don’t profit by the blood of your countrymen and women, or hate them in your heart. Do tell someone if you see them doing wrong, but don’t let yourself get dragged into their wrongdoing too. Keep the community’s place of worship in good condition and treat it as a sacred place. Don’t defraud anyone, and love your neighbor as yourself. V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha – possibly the most famous passage in this entire section.

And in this section of the Torah God states, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, ye shall not do them any wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am ADONAI, your God.”

How ironic that we come upon these words tonight just as the State of Arizona has passed a law allowing police officers to take race into account and stop people on the street to do a check on their immigration status. I guess it’s not enough to use undocumented immigrants for hard labor in our agricultural fields and pay them a couple bucks an hour so we can have cheap lettuce, strawberries and melons. No, we need to scapegoat them too and humiliate an entire racial group with spot checks by police. Is that the best that’s in us as a society? Is that how we show the greatness of our nation? By wronging the stranger? I’m sorry – apparently I’ve digressed.

One of the early sages, Rabbi Chiyya, had a yeshiva and taught students in the Galilean city of Tiberius about 1800 years ago. He taught that this part of the Torah in particular was spoken aloud by God to the entire Israelite community – as opposed to other sections that would have been privately recited to Moses and then taught by Moses to the people. Chiyya reasoned that this must have been so because this section includes the most essential principles of Torah. It was for him, in a sense, the heart of Torah.

Speaking of the heart of things, the Hebrew word for heart, lev, occurs in one of its grammatical forms one of the mitzvot in this chapter. The verse is verse 17, and the words are “Do not hate your brother or sister in your heart.” The Hebrew text uses only the masculine, achicha, meaning “brother,” but because biblical Hebrew used the male to refer to both genders when speaking universally, it is accurate to translate the verse as “don’t hate your brother or sister in your heart.”

I guess this is the mitzvah that’s resonating for me tonight as I think about the new law in Arizona. It’s not just that our tradition teaches us to empathize with the plight of the stranger in a strange land and to empathize with the despised outsiders of society. And it’s not just that our history as Jews has made us know what this feels like over and over again in many different lands. It’s that we also value the teaching that it’s a grave mistake to cultivate hatred for your sisters and brothers in your heart. And this fear-mongering about Mexican and other Latino laborers, besides being hypocritical, is, to me, a form of deliberately cultivating a loathing within the heart for an entire class of people. Have they broken one of our laws? Yes. Are their circumstances often the kind that drive people to break such laws in order to put food on their extended family’s tables? Also yes. Should they be easily condemned by citizens who didn’t exactly acquire places like, say, Arizona, by legitimate or legal means? Only if we want to cultivate disgust, blame, and – I’ll say it – hatred in our hearts in response to a much more complex set of problems in our nation.

The Torah teaches that the heart is capable of hatred, and that we are to guard against going down this path. Fortunately, the Hebrew Bible also teaches that the heart is capable of many other responses too. In fact, the heart is incredibly creative and has the capacity to respond in hundreds of different ways – thank God.

There’s a midrash – a classical rabbinic interpretive teaching – that comments on this notion that the heart has these countless capacities. Citing biblical verses for each one of the heart’s capacities, the midrash goes like this – and be aware, it goes on for a while:

The heart sees, as the Bible says, “My heart has seen much.” It hears, as it says, “Give Your servant therefore a heart that hears.” It speaks, as the Bible says, “I spoke with my own heart.” The heart walks, as it says, “Went not my heart?” It falls, as it is said, “Let no one’s heart fall within themselves.” It stands, as it says, “Can your heart stand [that is, endure]?” It rejoices, as it says, “Therefore my heart is glad…” It cries, as it says in the Book of Lamentations, “Their heart cried unto God.” The heart can be comforted, as it says in Isaiah, “Bid Jerusalem, take heart.” It can be troubled, as it says, “Your heart shall not be grieved.” The heart can become hardened, as it says, “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” The heart grows faint, as it says, “Let not your heart grow faint.” It grieves, as it says, “It grieved God in the heart.” It fears, as it says, “For the fear of your heart.” It can be broken, as it says in Psalms, “A broken and contrite heart.” It becomes proud, as it says, “Your heart is lifted up.” The heart rebels, as it says, “This people has a revolting and rebellious heart.” It invents, as it says, “Even in the month which he had devised of his own heart.” It scoffs, as Scripture says, “Though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” The heart overflows, as it says, “My heart overflows with a wonderful matter.” The heart devises, as it says in the Proverbs, “There are many devices in a person’s heart.” It desires, as it says, “You have given him his heart’s desire.” It goes astray, as it says, “Don’t let your heart decline to her ways.” Uh-oh! It lusts, as it says, “So that you don’t go about after your own heart.” It is refreshed, as Abraham said to the strangers visiting his tent, “Come, enjoy and satisfy your heart.” The heart can be stolen, as it says, “And Jacob stole Laban’s heart.” It is humbled, as it says, “Then maybe their uncircumcised heart will be humbled.” The heart is enticed, as it says, “He spoke enticingly upon the heart of the damsel.” It errs, as it says, “My heart is bewildered.

We’re only halfway through folks…

I’ll just share a few more that I’ve cherry picked.

The heart meditates, as it says in the Psalms, “The meditation of my heart shall be understanding.” It takes in words, as it says, “And these words which I command you on this day shall be in your heart.” It speaks from out of itself, as it says, “Now, Hanna, she spoke in her heart.” It writes words, as it says, “Write them upon the tablet of your heart.”

May we all remember that what we choose to do to the stranger among us we write on the tablets of our heart, and on the heart of our nation.

Shabbat shalom.

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