The Ideal of Being a Stranger

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“She bore a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22)

After fleeing Pharaoh in Egypt, Moshe Rabeinu settles in Midian and marries Yitro’s daughter, Tziporah. The Torah then describes the birth and naming of their first child: “She bore a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22) The name Gershom is made up of two Hebrew words: ger (stranger) and sham (there). It is rather puzzling that Moshe Rabeinu names his first child with this, seemingly, negative connotation. In Judaism, there is a principle that the name of a person is closely connected with their spiritual essence, and surely Moshe would have desired a more positive energy for his son!

The Malbim explains that, although Moshe Rabeinu fled Egypt as a result of a Hebrew informing Pharaoh and the Egyptians of his activities, he had not forgotten his love for his brethren, the Hebrew nation. Although he, himself, was in a place of safety and security, Moshe constantly had his heart and mind set on returning, to somehow deliver the Hebrew nation from bondage.

Based on the Malbim’s explanation, the term “Gershom” implies refusing to be completely at peace when one’s brethren are suffering (despite one’s personal comfort). Moshe Rabeinu wanted to instill this very positive character trait in his son, Gershom. He wanted Gershom to represent a person who lives a peaceful, happy, and privileged lifestyle, but still deeply cares about the welfare of his family, brethren, and other people in general.

Almost two thousand years ago, the Jewish people were exiled from their land and scattered throughout the world. Compared to most other exiled generations, our personal exile experience is extremely mild. At times, while on our vacations or in our modern homes, we feel that our lives are perfect and ideal. In all our prayers, we mention the Torah’s ideal of returning to the Land of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles (from all four corners of the earth), but in our hearts do we really feel it? By naming his son Gershom, Moshe Rabeinu reminds us not to simply focus on our own personal pleasurable lives, but to constantly remain focused on our brethren, God, and our spiritual ideals. While enjoying and thanking God for our relatively mild exile, we should maintain our feeling of being strangers and strengthen our resolve to work for (and to long for) the ultimate redemption. May it come soon in our days!