We arein August and Elul. That means we are in the Book of Devarim /Deuteronomy, which Moses teaches to the Jewish people on the Plains of Moav overlooking the Promised Land to which he will not gain entry. The Book of Devarim can rightfully be called the Book of Love. It is the first of the five books of the Torah in which love-the love of God for the Jewish people and the love of the Jewish people for God-is presented.
Yet, there is a third great love in the Torah. First, there is the love of God found in the Sh'ma: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might.
The second great love of the Torah is from an earlier book, the Book of Vayikra /Leviticus: And you shall love your fellow man as yourself. Both of these loves are straightforward.
Parenthetically, as opposed to the literatures of other religious systems, the Torah does not simply present love as a concept, a feeling, or an abstraction. For Judaism, love is a behavior, an action. How to love one's fellow man and woman is commanded by the Torah in great detail. In mitzvot, it describes how we must treat the person and the property of another. Love of God is also spelled out in detail. Love of God is expressed in immersion in God the way one is immersed in any great love.
Now we come to the third great and remarkable love.
And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and all your being, to keep the Lord's commands and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good.
The text then takes a surprising turn:
Look, the Lord your God's are the heavens, and the heavens beyond the heavens, the earth, and all that is in it... For the Lord your God is the God of Gods and the Master of Masters, the great, mighty, and fearsome God…
Well, if God is so great, mighty, and fearsome, and if God is the one who created Heaven and Earth, what should now follow are some pretty amazing powerful examples that only someone that mighty and that awesome can achieve like juggling Jupiter, Mars, and Uranus! That is not what follows. What follows is this verse:
God… doing justice for orphan and widow, and loving the stranger to give him bread and clothing. And you shall love the stranger, for strangers you were in the Land of Egypt.
That last phrase we hear all the time. But the Torah goes a step further. It is really not enough to ground love of a stranger in one's own personal experience. To ground any mitzvah, ethical or moral, in one's personal experience relativizes it. It means that the obligation to love the stranger is contingent upon personal experience. It is not an absolute. When the Torah wants to illustrate what it means that God is the Creator and Master of Heaven and Earth, when the Torah wants to describe what it means that God is great, awesome, and mighty, the Torah says, "You know how powerful, awesome, and almighty God is? God loves the stranger."
God does not just love God's own chosen people, the Jewish people, God loves all of humanity. The behaviors by which God expresses love for the stranger-food, clothing, shelter-are the basic necessities of life.
This verse presents an idea that is at once radical and simple. It is radical in the following sensense: each of us as individuals, and each people or community, is the sum total of their experiences. Those experiences are recalled in memory. When confronted with a difficult issue, whether it be familial, political, social, or economic, we all draw upon our memories to guide us. As a Jewish people we recall the slavery in Egypt. The Torah asks us to draw upon our memories. We should never oppress the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. That makes sense.
Many American Jews are still able to recall that they are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of people who suffered something terrible; of people who were driven out of the great Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires to these blessed American shores. When American Jews recall the experiences of their grandparents and great-grandparents they are moved to be concerned about other immigrants and other refugees.
However, there is a problem with personal experience as the basis of right behavior. This makes goodness, righteousness, justice, and love dependent upon frail human memory and personal selective recall. Other people have other experiences which are equally valid. What makes this verse so significant is that it goes beyond personal experience as the basis of right behavior. This verse makes loving the stranger an absolute norm of the Torah. One is obligated to love the stranger not just because of Jewish human experience.
One is obligated to love the stranger because God in whose image everyone is created loves the stranger. That is the absolute ground of it. Having established that, the Torah moves from the principle to the quotidian, the simple, and the daily.
Love is not an emotion when it comes to strangers. Love is behavior. God feeds, clothes, and shelters hungry, homeless, naked people. So do we.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.