Being the Stranger

Va'era By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 12, 2002 / 5762

Parashat Vaera opens dramatically with God’s stirring proclamation to Moses: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai , but I did not make myself known to them by my nameAdonai . I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings (megureihem ), where they had sojourned (garu )” (Exodus 6: 2-4). God then goes on to make a fourfold promise of redemption. Still, God’s introductory words are striking — linking this promise of redemption to the same promise made to Moses’ ancestors. It is the fulfillment of an ancestral promise. Yet, what is even more profound is the language of Exodus 6:4 — specifically the repetition of the root ger, sojourner.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847-1905), ironically enough of the town of Ger (called Gora Kalwaria in Polish, near Warsaw), deepens our understanding of the word ger. In his Torah commentary known as the Sefat Emeth , “The Language of Truth,” he writes, “The precious work of our ancestors is alluded to in this verse. So the Torah states, ‘the land of their sojournings, where they had sojourned (garu )’ (Exodus 6:4). The word ger meaning sojourner, stranger and convert is also employed in the midrash : Abraham made proselytes as did his wife Sarah (B’reishit Rabbah 4:4 ). The precise meaning of ger in this context of conversion refers to drawing everything back to its roots. The exile of Egypt and indeed all exiles involve this aspect. And the merit of our ancestors stands by this.” While the Israelites were in Egypt they were strangers in a strange land. God’s act of redemption in taking the Israelites out of Egypt to the land promised to their ancestors was an act of ‘conversion.’ Just as Abraham and Sarah had actively brought others back to their roots, so too does God act in the context of the Exodus. God’s act of holiness draws the Israelites back to their roots.

I would like to take the Sefat Emeth’s explanation one step further. To read this commentary in isolation from the text, is to get the impression that God is the proactive one — God takes the initiative to return us to our roots. The Torah though imparts a more complex understanding. For it was not God who initiated the process of redemption. Rather, it was the Israelites in their calling out to God. As Exodus 2:23-25 states, “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” It is a painful, mournful cry of the Israelites that initiates a process of redemption. It is the profound sadness of feeling oppressed, demoralized and alienated from their roots that compels the Israelites to cry out. And quite dramatically, God responds.

Redemption is not a passive experience in which we wait for God to initiate the process. True redemption demands first that we feel our own pain and alienation from the world around us. True redemption must be preceded by a feeling of being a ger, a stranger. Only then can we move toward and appreciate the journey of coming home — returning to our roots.

I hope and pray that the Torah’s model of redemption serves as a model in both our national and personal lives. May we each have the courage to feel estranged and then to help ourselves and others return to our precious roots. God will surely respond if we take the initiative.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.