From Other to Neighbour

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5780.


This past year we watched as migrant children were separated from their families at the US border. As people slept on the floors of crowded detention facilities.  We watched as our neighbour to the south struggled to know how to handle a flood of people coming from somewhere else. People who are other.

This past year we watched as Quebec passed a new law. It forbids public servants – including teachers and police officers – from wearing religious symbols while they are on duty. Of course that includes observant Jews who wear a kippah, and Muslims who wear the hijab. Again, a society struggling with how to manage differences between people.

This year we’ve seen Canada’s party leaders debate illegal border crossings. Billboards out west warning against the dangers of “mass immigration.” A Prime Minister accused of latent racism when pictures surfaced of him wearing brownface. A party leader told that if he takes off his turban he will “look like a Canadian.”

We’ve seen the United Kingdom continue to wrestle with Brexit and immigration. A rise of nativist and isolationist rhetoric in Europe. We’ve watched as Israel passed a law defining itself as a Jewish state – much to the chagrin of its sizable non-Jewish minority.

We are living in a world where we seem to be hyper-sensitive to the differences between us. And where policies are being built around those sensitivities. Sometimes these feel like local issues – Quebec dealing with secularism, Israel defining its Jewish nature – but if we look at the world as a whole, it’s clear that we are all really struggling with the same question: Who is in, who is out? Who is part of the group and who is not? Who is “us” and who is “other?”


On Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon about oneness. I argued that both Judaism and science teach us that there is a unity in the universe – and that all creation and all humanity are one – made of the same stuff, born of the same ancestors. A single family with a single destiny.

But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is that despite our common origins and our biological connectedness, we also have differences. And part of the human experience is to be aware of those differences and to define ourselves based on them.

George Herbert Mead, a 19th century pioneer of sociology and psychology, discovered that one of the earliest things children do is to try to take on the roles of people around them. It helps us separate between “them” and “me.” That’s how we begin to figure out who we are – by knowing who we are not.

Later social scientists have taken that idea a step further, to argue that we develop our sense of self by aligning ourselves with groups. Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos writes that all “identities have some element of exclusivity.[1]”By definition, the people we feel we have less in common with will be outsiders to us.

That means that when a country struggles with immigration, or religious garb, it’s doing something very human: trying to define itself. The challenge is that our natural tendency is to define ourselves by excluding others. That’s what leads to immigrant detentions, and hijab bans, and border walls.


So how are we as Jews supposed to approach this issue? After all, we’re as interested in self-definition as anybody else (and maybe more than some). What do we do when we want to recognize our connection to all people, but we also value an exclusive group? How do we build policies that acknowledge both sides of the coin – both oneness and separateness? What does Judaism have to say about the other?

It won’t surprise you to learn that Judaism has a lot to say. In fact, I thought of at least three different sermons I could give this evening.

For example, I could give a sermon about the divinity and equality of all people.

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. (Genesis 1)

One of the basic messages of Torah is that all people have worth. This is an idea that it has inspired a lot of good people to do a lot of good things. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel quoted it when he marched in the Civil Rights movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King, was inspired by it to fight for equality.

The idea of Tzelem Elohim, the image of God, is a very ancient and very powerful Jewish idea. But I’m not going to give that sermon. I think we’ve mostly heard it before.

So instead, maybe I can give a sermon about loving the stranger. That’s all over the Torah:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה  – You shall not wrong the stranger. (Exodus 22:20)

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ  – You shall not oppress a stranger. (Exodus 23:9)

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר – The stranger shall be like one your citizens. (Leviticus 19:34)

This idea appears 36 times – more than any other commandment in the Torah.

And the reason given is always the same: ”‏כי גרים הייתם – because you were strangers.” You know the experience of the stranger, says the Torah. You know what it is to be oppressed, to be feared because you are different. And therefore, you have a special responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else. Surely, we children and grandchildren of the Holocaust can get behind that idea.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of sermons about this. Many from American rabbis talking about immigration:

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz writes that she “reflected deeply on these verses [about loving the stranger, as she] participated in a rally …. to support the Dream Act” – which would have allowed for certain migrant kids to receive legal status.

Rabbi Esther Lederman invoked this passage in her call to close the detention centres at the US border.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, calls on it in his argument for the “the humane treatment of even those who come illegally…”

So I’m not going to give that sermon, because I think others have already said it better.


You’re probably asking yourself: What sermon is he going to give, then? Well, here’s the question I started asking myself:

It’s lovely that our tradition teaches us to love the stranger and to recognize the divine image in all people. I believe deeply in those ideas. But I wonder: does it also acknowledge when things aren’t so clear? Does it recognize the other side of the coin – our human need to differentiate ourselves from others?

And the answer is that it does. These are the passages that are harder to read.

In Deuteronomy chapter 10, we read one of those many reminders to love the stranger: “V’ahavtem et ha-ger – you should befriend the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.”[4] From there if we flip back three chapters we find a very different passage. Here Moses is giving final advice to the people before they cross into the land of Israel. He says:

כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ
When the Eternal God brings you into the land …

וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ אֶת־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ך
…you shall destroy all the peoples that your Eternal God delivers to you.

לֹא־תָחֹ֥ס עֵֽינְךָ֖ עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם
Show them no pity. (Deuteronomy 7:16)

Well, that’s different. We just finished reading “love the stranger” 36 times, and now all of a sudden we’re commanded to destroy the stranger? To separate yourselves out from them? To demolish their altars?

What’s going on here? How can the very same Torah – in fact the very same Torah portion –  command both of these things? The answer, from the Torah’s perspective, is that it is talking about two different groups of people.

The command to love the stranger refers to what’s called in Hebrew the ger, which means “the one who dwells among you.“ This is a foreigner who has moved into an Israelite settlement. In Canadian terms, it’s like a Permanent Resident – a foreigner by birth, who has opted into the local society.

That’s very different from the amim – these surrounding nations that we’re commanded to destroy or stay away from. Who are they? Well, the Torah tells us their names: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These are foreign tribes. They live outside our walls. They speak different languages. They have different worldviews.

So from the outset we can already see that the Torah is demonstrating something very human – the desire to categorize people into us and them. It’s comfortable with a stranger who is not so very strange, but it warns us to stay away from people who are very different from us.

Now we have to ask ourselves why. Why the command to separate ourselves from them? What are the writers od Torah afraid of? And the answer can also be found a few verses earlier, when the Torah warns not to intermarry, or to mix with them too much

כִּֽי־יָסִ֤יר אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ מֵֽאַחֲרַ֔י וְעָבְד֖וּ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים
For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods.[5]

In other words, keep yourself separate from then so that you aren’t tempted by their religion, heir norms, their way of life. So that our way of life won’t be endangered by the presence of the other.

Now I think we’re in familiar territory. Why do we human beings exclude or prohibit those who are different? Often it’s we’re worried about the future integrity of our own group. And we find this in all different areas.

The Jewish community response to intermarriage is often predicated on the idea that it will lead to our demise.
Quebec’s Premier Francois Legault defended the religious symbol ban by saying that “We have to think of what’s best for our children.”[6]
Donald Trump, has referred to the masses of migrants on the southern US border as an “invasion”[7] against America.
And Israel’s new Nation-State law explicitly says that the purpose of the Jewish state is to “preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish people.”

We act in exclusive ways when we are worried about about our own people’s future – both on the level of cultural integrity – “I don’t want someone else to come in and change our way of life.” But also on an even more basic level, where we are worried about survival, about “competition for jobs, land, and power.”[8]

Evolutionary scientists tell us that we come by this fear honestly. This quote is based on the work of Professor Victoria Esses at the University of Western Ontario:

Such perceptions [of the danger of the other] were accurate during our history as hunter-gatherers when the appearance of others on our patch meant fewer mastodons or mushrooms for us. If they were close relatives they might share – or at least our common genes would benefit from their success. But anyone displaying different cultural markers was likely to be a competitor.


So we’ve spent 70,000 years thinking that anyone different from us is a threat to our very existence. And we’ve built into that all of the cultural, national, and religious elements that make up our unique identities as humans. You can see why we feel so insecure around people who are different.

So how do you shift that kind of thinking in a world where we are regularly in contact with a diverse set of people? I think it requires rethinking how we define the other.

Return with me for a moment to social science. One of the factors that can help reduce group conflict is finding common goals. In one famous study, a group of boys who didn’t know each other were divided into two groups and given competitive tasks – games and contests. What happened next won’t surprise you – they created team names, burned each other’s flags, ransacked one another’s cabins, and fought with one another. Until, in the second stage of the experiment, the boys were told that some things had gone wrong and they would need to work together to remedy the problems – for example, to get the truck carrying their food out of the mud. Then they were able to work together and the fighting ceased.[9]

When we find common goals, it realigns our sense of who is in our group. That’s actually the power of an idea like Tzelem Elohim – the image of God. It reminds us of what we have in common with all our fellow humans.

About ten years ago, a Morrocan-Canadian businessman named Khalid Mrini put together a hockey team of Moroccan ex-pats based mostly in Montreal. The team was about a third Jewish and about two thirds Muslim – and they became something of a sensation, not only for their hockey skills but also for their ability to put aside old animosities and focus on a common love of the game. Mrini said: “We don’t have weapons, we have sweat. And whether your name is Eli or Mohammed doesn’t matter, you’re going to embrace after you score a goal.”[10]

One of the incredible things that some modern Democracies have done is to make diversity a guiding value of society. I was aware of this last week when I was filling out my application for Canadian citizenship and I read these words:

Canada is a country that embodies multiculturalism and diversity and encourages newcomers to achieve their full potential.[11]

This is central to our group identity as Canadians. This week, Jagmeet Singh responded to a suggestion that he should cut off his turban to look like a Canadian by saying “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people.”

Rather than the old model in which the members of a group are basically homogenous, Canada is built on the idea that what we have in common is mutual respect for what we don’t have in common.

So how do we square that with the Torah’s fear of others? Well, if you remember, the Torah knows of two different kinds of foreigners: the ger and the amim. The ones who live in your village, who you’re supposed to love and include; and the ones who live across the border, who you’re supposed to have nothing to do with.

But what we have to remember is that in the 6th century BCE, most people lived in villages of no more than a few hundred people. Even the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem probably had between 1500 and 2000 people. So if someone new move to town, you knew it. And you knew them. Strangers didn’t stay strangers long.

But today our village is much larger. Today we are more aware of more people living in more places. I can text with someone living across the world. I can read news of from every continent. I can iMessage South Africa; I can email China. I can Facetime with any person in any country.

If the Torah defines the ger as the person who lives among you – the stranger who becomes your neighbour – then in the world of instant global communication, that’s everyone. We have 8 billion neighbours in our village. So we’d better start doing what our tradition recommends, and getting to know them.


This past March, following the horrific shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 Muslim worshippers were killed, we reached out to the mosque down the street. We were one of about 20 Jewish groups that formed “Rings of Peace” during Muslim prayers. We stood outside the Jaffari Centre on Bathurst, we sang songs, and greeted worshippers as they walked in for the service. The idea was to send a message: we stand with you; our community is here for your community. But the effect for me was much more personal. The part that really stuck with me was that I got to shake the hands of hundreds of people as they walked into their mosque. Look into their eyes. Receive their heartfelt thanks.

This is the way that we move people from “other” to “neighbour.” By shaking hands; by knowing each other; by recognizing not only our shared humanity in the larger sense, but our individuality. By knowing each other as people, we can come to see that the other is very much like us.

There is an extraordinary organization in Israel called Tag Meir. It is a coalition of groups from across the religious and political spectrum, and it was formed about 10 years ago in response to what were called “Price Tag attacks,” when extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank would commit reprisal attacks on Palestinians and soldiers. In response, the organizers of Tag Meir began to arrange acts of kindness, to arrange visits to victims of hate crimes – no matter their ethnicity or religion. They’ve made hundreds of these visits in the last decade – busloads of people of all backgrounds visiting and showing solidarity with victims of hate.

Here’s a description from their website of a recent visit:

Yesterday we visited George– a bus driver [who] was violently attacked last Sunday. George told us that during the ride, a group of youths started to call him “Arab, Arab” and threw large stones at him. He was injured in the stomach and back, and even set upon by their dog…

One woman came to George’s aid. She had her head covered – in the Jewish religious style, she brought him water and a first aid kit.

“I want to find her and thank her,” he told us.

We embraced George and promised to continue to be by his side as necessary. George was happy to see our group and even took a selfie![12]

I think that what Tag Meir is doing right is refusing to see this as a problem of one group against another.

Jews vs Arabs. Americans vs migrants. Quebeqois vs newcomers. We’ll never solve our problems that way. These are human issues, and they can’t be solved by sides – only by people. Only by neighbours.

As we enter this new year, may we strive to celebrate all the pieces of our identities – both those that make us different, and those that make us alike. May we reach out to those around us, strive to see the other as an individual – so that he or she may cease to be the other and instead become a neighbour.









[4] Deuteronomy 10:19.

[5] Deuteronomy 7:4.



[8] Sanderson, C and Safdar, S. Social Psychology. Wiley: 2012. p. 332.

[9] Ibid 333.




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