There is one commandment that appears more than any other in Torah – that we should love the stranger. It occurs more times than statements about God, keeping Shabbat or even worshipping idols.
It is rooted in the lived experience of the Israelites: “…you know the soul of a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 29:3), and it is the combination of a strong moral grounding and the compelling way it draws on Jewish memory that has brought this maxim into the heart of the anti-discrimination and anti-racism work many Jews undertake today.
There are, however, numerous places in Torah where the behaviour of both God and the Israelites does not live up to this aspiration and our texts appear to condone racist or discriminatory actions.
For instance, Israelites are forbidden from marrying the daughters of Canaanites (Genesis 28:1); Pinchas is praised for killing a man who engages in relations with a Moabite woman (Numbers 25); Moses is reprimanded for marrying a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1).
Then the Israelites are told to deal harshly with the inhabitants of the land because they are a superior people (Deuteronomy 7) – and so the list goes on.
How can we square these incidents with the commandment that imbues the text that surrounds them?
Or indeed with the statement at the start of Torah that we are all made in the image of God?
These moments remind us of the difference between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
It is often the times where human actions fall short of our own moral compass that show us where there is work to do, and the commandment to love the stranger guides our hands in that task.