By Lauren Adams, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class
The three verses I read, which conclude our parasha, describe Moses’s flight to Midian after he kills an Egyptian slave-master. At a well in Midian, he meets the daughters of a Midianite priest who are trying to draw water for their flock but have been driven away by shepherds. In the next few verses, Moses defends the priest’s daughters, and their father invites him to the house to break bread. The priest then gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses as a wife. Moses and Zipporah have a son whom he names Gershom, which means “a stranger there,” for, Moses, says, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.”
Moses’s statement, made at this particular time in his life, is rather paradoxical. Unlike his fellow Israelites, who have long been strangers in the land of Egypt, Moses recognizes himself as a stranger in a strange land only when he leaves Egypt. A Jew raised as an Egyptian, Moses had been a stranger all of his life. But it is in Midian, where Moses is taken for an Egyptian (presumably because of his clothes), that he feels like a stranger. Only once Zipporah’s family welcomes him does he recognize his strangeness.
Even before trying to unravel this paradox while thinking about our parasha, the phrase a stranger in a strange land called out to me. The image of a young man wandering into new territory, not yet knowing his future, takes me back to my first encounters with Judaism and Jewish texts. The most memorable of these was my very first Passover Seder, at the home of dear friends of my husband, Jonathan’s—and now mine. On that special evening, our friends were also hosting a distinguished guest, Dr. Abram Sachar, a renowned Jewish historian and the first president of Brandeis University. My head was swimming that night as I tried to keep up with the dialogue. Having grown up Catholic with only a passing familiarity with the ten plagues and the parting of the red sea, I could barely follow the sophisticated discussion of connecting texts and related stories. A stranger in a strange land, indeed. I’m sorry to say that I’ve retained nothing of the intellectual substance from that night, but the shared participation in the telling, the delicious Sephardic foods, and the resounding call of “Next year in Jerusalem!” made a lasting impression. I did not yet know that it was only the beginning of my Jewish education.
In the years that followed, as Jonathan and I built a life together and decided to raise our children Jewish, my exploration of Judaism continued and deepened. We brought Jewish traditions into our home, and I took classes to keep up with what my children were learning in Sunday school. Eventually, my curiosity pulled me further into study, and I fell in love with the texts, with the history, with the traditions and values of the Jewish people.
Given my own journey into the Jewish community, the paradox of Moses’s strangeness resonates deeply with me. In Midian, where Moses is “a stranger,” he meets his wife Zipporah and her father, a Midianite priest who later becomes his trusted advisor. They go on to travel together in Sinai, and the priest helps him lead. In the strange land of Midian, Moses meets his new family, and stays for 40 years.
Twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize that special Seder as the first step in my journey to Judaism. As I stand with my classmates today after another rich year of study together, I look back and remember, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.” But now that land is home.