“Two sons — of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, ‘I have been a stranger in a foreign land’” Exodus 18:3


Gershom, one of Moses’s two sons, is named several times, indicating its importance to the Torah. Nothing is repeated that doesn’t have something to teach us and Gershom’s name is a potent reminder of a spiritual posture shared by many of our patriarchs and prophets. Moses says “Ger hayyiti”, “I was a stranger”, and he is not the only one to do so. Abraham also identifies himself as a “stranger and a foreigner”, and David as well sees himself as a “stranger”, alienated and estranged from God. 

Yet to us, these three men seem to be the model of what it means to be close to God. How can it be that Moses, the one who got the closest to God, feels such estrangement, and so acutely?

Perhaps the “strangeness” referenced here is an instructive, pedagogic sort of strangeness. We’re likely all familiar with the phenomenon of déja vu — the bizarre experience of feeling that something which you know is occurring for the first time has nonetheless occurred before. 

Yet the French language, in its infinite nuance, provides another useful term as well, jamais vu, meant to describe the opposite experience: feeling like something you have done many times is actually brand new. 

As a rabbi who never had a barmitzvah, and a Hebrew teacher who still teaches out of the book from which I learned only a decade ago, I can certainly relate to the estrangement that many of us feel from Judaism. But I think the lesson that we all should learn from Moses’s repeated identification of his own alienation is that the “strangeness” these patriarchs describe is not a negative, but a positive. 

Perhaps to proclaim ger hayyiti is to affirm that spiritual life is about trying to stimulate and achieve a feeling of jamais vu — trying to make things which we do by rote and routine feel new. 

Perhaps we must continually and purposefully re-estrange ourselves, so that we can experience Jewish life from the outside and view it with fresh eyes and new perspectives. May we all find a way to experience the jamais vu in our Jewish life, so that it feels new every day. 

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