Our name is our mission

Our name is our mission

In the Tanach, our Bible, names of people often are more than merely what they are called. They also may describe some quality of a person, or the hope the person bestowing the name has for the one being named. At times, too, a person’s name reflects something about the person doing the naming, which is how Leah and Rachel named their children, for example.

We carry two names. One name—Jew—we did not give ourselves. It derives from a geographical designation, Judea, which itself is based on the name Judah (Yehudah), which essentially means giving praise to God. (See Genesis 39:35.) We may not have given ourselves that name, but we carry it proudly, or we should.

The other name reflects who we really are—B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. Yisrael can be translated in several ways, but the only definition that matters is the one that explains why it was given to our Father Jacob: because he wrestled with “beings divine and human” and prevailed. (See Genesis 32:29.) We, Jacob/Israel’s descendants, are the people who wrestle with understanding God and understanding what God meant by designating us as God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” as we learn in this Shabbat’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro (see Exodus 19:6).

I will come back to that.

At the beginning of Parashat Yitro, we are told the names of Moses’ two sons and the reasons why they bore those names. Of particular interest is the first one, Gershom, whose name first appears in Exodus 2:22. There we are told that Moses named him Gershom, “for he said, ‘I was a stranger in a strange land.’”

That sentence, though, is too wordy. As our Sages taught by the inference of many of their debates (Rabbi Akiva especially, see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sotah 3a), each word in the Torah of Moses (Torat Moshe) has a reason for being there. Moses was in Midian when Gershom was born and so, of course, he was a “ger sham,” a “stranger there,” which would have been explanation enough. Yet he did not say “stranger there,” he said he was “a stranger in a strange land.”

Does that added phrase mean it is possible not to be a stranger in a strange land? Does it mean a person can be a stranger in a land that is not strange, presumably one’s native land?

Moses, in fact, was a stranger in his own land, in Egypt. He had been raised as a prince of Egypt, but he knew somehow that he was an Israelite, not an Egyptian. All he needed to do at a pivotal moment in his life was hold his tongue and his temper, and all the riches of Egypt would remain at his feet; all the glory of being a prince of Egypt would remain forever his. At a pivotal moment in his life, however, the Israelite in him could not accept that injustice and intolerance were the privileges of power. He saw an injustice and he sought to right it, and all that he ever was or could ever be in Egypt was gone in an instant and gone forever. (See Exodus 2:11-12.)

Suddenly, Moses was a stranger in a familiar land that now was very strange to him.

And so, he ran off into the wilderness and settled in Midian, where he met Tzipporah, married her, and eventually had two sons by her, the eldest of whom he named Gershom.

Only by then, he was no longer a stranger in a strange land, but a resident of that land. It may not have been his native land, but it was his home. Yet that same undefinable something kept lurking deep inside him, and it kept reminding him that he was always an Israelite first, and that to be an Israelite was not merely to posses an ethnic identity. It had a special purpose.

We see this from the moment he arrived in Midian. He was a man on the run. He had escaped from Egypt, where he was wanted for the murder of an Egyptian overseer, and probably for an even worse crime as well — embarrassing the royal family. The last thing he should have done was call attention to himself, but that sense of justice, that sense of tolerance, that sense of compassion for the underdog, just would not let go of him.

Only moments after arriving in Midian, we see him fighting with a bunch of shepherds who were harassing Tzipporah and her sisters. (See Exodus 2:16-17.)

Mind you, these young women were not just any women. Their father was Jethro, “priest of Midian,” as we are told. Since it is unlikely that people in that ancient world would pick on the children of priests they respected—if for no other reason than that they feared the power of those priests—we must assume Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) was a priest of a cult that these shepherds, at least, did not respect.

And there was Moses, coming to the rescue of Jethro’s daughters. He did not know who they were. Yet not only did he defend them at that moment, he moved in with Jethro and continued to protect Jethro and his family for the next 40 years.

He may have been in Midian, but he never could be of Midian.

He began as a stranger in his own land; now, he was a stranger in a strange land.

How many of us would name our sons Gershom for the reason Moses gave? How many of us feel that we, too, are strangers in a strange land—a land that does not share our values or our ethics?

I doubt there are very many who feel that way. This is, after all, the land of the free, the home of the brave, the place where opportunity knocks on your door, not the secret police who knocked on our doors in other lands.

We are content to live in our own little worlds and ignore the realities of life outside those worlds. Only, we are Israel, Yisrael. We are not supposed to be content. As noted above, we are the people who wrestle with understanding what it is God wants of us, what God means by referring to our role in this world as God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”

We live in a society that—or so it seems to me—is more interested in gossip than issues of social justice.

Thank God we do not have to mourn the deaths of anyone held hostage last Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, but how many innocent people did die violently that day in the United States?

How many people here yesterday were victims of some form of physical or mental abuse, including rape?

How many children here went without sufficient and nutritious food today?

The average is around 170 people dying violently per day—including more than nine children who were killed by guns. The average number of abuse cases of all kinds per day is a staggering 34,560. The estimated number of “food-insecure” children is around 11.7 million.

How many of us know these statistics—or care? Far more people, I believe, are focused on celebrity goings-on judging by the popularity of the gossip industry.

If we are God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” then we are all Gershom, or should be. We are strangers in a land that does not share the values we are supposed to have and to pass on to others, because we are God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”

Among many other things, as Leviticus 19 details, this identity of ours means that we must not “stand idly by the blood of [our] fellow,” that we must “show deference to the elderly,” and that not only must we not wrong the strangers among us, but we must love them as we would love ourselves and our fellow citizens.

As we will see next Shabbat when we read the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23), which is essentially the constitution of this “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” it means that we must create a society in which all people are truly equal, regardless of any artificial distinctions created to keep people apart from each other. It means that we must create a society in which justice reigns, a justice that is tempered by mercy. It means that we must especially protect the rights of the underprivileged—all their rights, including their right to help choose our leaders. We must also see to their needs so that no one goes without food or any other of life’s necessities.

This is neither the society in which we live, nor the world in which we live. We are Israel, but unless we are actively engaged in changing our society and our world (this is a congressional election year, after all), we will continue to be Gershom.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.