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What a Name?

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 Chapter 2, 22)

Moshe, our teacher, had a son who he named “Gershom” (comprised of the Hebrew words Ger meaning stranger and Sham meaning there). He named his son expressing the idea that he (Moshe) was a stranger in a foreign land. One would have thought that Moshe would have been thrilled to become a father and would have given his son an upbeat, positive name. Additionally, our tradition teaches us that the name of a person reflects something essential about the person. Why give Gershom a name representing the pain of being a stranger in a foreign land?

The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839)) suggests that Moshe was expressing something positive. He notes that Moshe says, “I was a stranger” rather than “I am a stranger.” Moshe was expressing that he feels so at home, at peace, and comfortable in his new surroundings that his birthplace (Egypt) now seems to him like a foreign land. He was thanking God for his current situation as well as for his ability to adapt and feel at home in new surroundings. Moshe was blessing his son with the ability to adapt and thrive even when uprooted from a familiar birthplace.

Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (March 7, 1809 – September 18, 1879)) suggests an explanation that appears diametrically opposed to that of the Chatam Sofer. He explains that, although Moshe was forced to flee Egypt and had built up a new life with a wife and son, he had not forgotten his brethren in Egypt, and was constantly considering returning and redeeming them from their suffering in Egypt. The fact that he felt like a stranger was a good thing. While living a peaceful existence, he had not forgotten his brethren in Egypt and viewed dwelling with them as his true home. He wanted this caring trait of remembering one’s brethren despite one’s own good fortune to form the bedrock of his son’s psyche.

I would suggest that, perhaps, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, we need to be able to adapt and build a future wherever life takes us. We must always thank God and be appreciative of improved circumstances in our lives. On the other hand, we must never let peaceful and prosperous circumstances allow us to forget our national identity and spiritual purpose. We must be joyous and grateful for our blessings, but never settle completely until the final national and world redemption. May it come soon in our days!