The Genesis:3 Project
Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father Genesis 26:3
I am a complete introvert. People who know me almost very well will find that statement laughable because I have developed an “act” that enables me to engage with just about anyone. But I can’t think of anything less comfortable for me than being in a roomful of people I don’t know. I always feel like a stranger.
It’s my guess that my circumstance is not so unusual. While I have met people who at least appear to be able to initiate and maintain conversations with people familiar and unknown alike, the desire to flee to the safety of a good book or family or a comfortable chair and the TV remote is widespread. The feeling that I don’t quite fit in, I don’t quite belong here is pretty usual.
Even in the most native of circumstances that feeling of being alien can present itself. Middle school is defined by that feeling. The self-assured rabbi, preacher or imam can, with one sermon, turn a small private doubt into fear of excommunication. And if, while sitting through Thanksgiving dinner, a Passover seder or a family wedding, you have not wondered if you were adopted or, perhaps, dropped from another planet, you are likely the only self-assured human being alive today.
Feeling like a stranger, even in a familiar land, is, I think, the normal state of being.
But what if it is not just normal but intentional? That is, what if we are meant always to feel not quite at home?
I have been considering this notion because of a conversation with my very wise wife. As I complained that I was having trouble coming up with the framing of the conversation for our seder, she raised the subject of being strangers. Moses named his son “Gershom,” which means “stranger there,” explaining, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” The declaration from the Torah we read at the seder affirms that my father went down to Egypt va-yagar sham, often translated “and sojourned there,” but really carrying the meaning that he was a resident alien there. But even when speaking to Isaac about remaining in the land, God instructs him, “Sojourn in this land,” the word for “sojourn” again carrying the notion of being a stranger: gur ba’aretz hazot, be not quite a settled resident in this land, which, by the way, has been given to you. The same word appears dozens of times in the Bible, distinctly different from the words that mean “live,” “dwell,” “permanently settle” and, as the Passover story contrasts, “become immersed.”
Not only that, but the instruction to treat the stranger well is, famously, the most-repeated commandment in the Torah. And often included is the reminder that we ourselves know what it is like to be strangers.
It is the human condition – feeling alienated, separated, different from everyone and everything around us. Maybe we weren’t created that way, but since the expulsion from the Garden of Eden we have never been quite at home.
In my research on the question for the seder, I found a remarkable confluence of explanations for this peculiar framing of our circumstances. Only by remaining alienated are we prepared to be liberated. Only by maintaining a level of discomfort are we willing to be redeemed. Only by not settling permanently into our situation – the Haggadah calls it “submergence” – are we ready to be rescued – to “emerge.” Those slaves who were too comfortable in Egypt stayed behind. Those Egyptians who felt like strangers in a familiar land were the “mixed multitude” that joined the departing Israelites.
The lesson is that being a stranger is a blessing. It keeps us from becoming complacent, entitled and insensitive to difference. As much as it provokes a homesickness for an unknown home, being a stranger means always being ready to be redeemed.
I have three conclusions to share with you.
The first is religious. Estrangement from God is known in our tradition by an old-timey name: sin. Being a stranger to God is existentially lonely. Being assured that reconciliation is not only possible but desired through contrition and forgiveness is a powerful way to be lifted up. If God can make the stranger into an intimate, so can we.
The second is political. Only when we see our common state of being with the stranger to our land can we do the right thing. We were all strangers, to coin a phrase. We are all strangers, to modify it a bit. To define the stranger as less-than, as a de facto enemy, is to prevent us from addressing our own alienation.
The third is cosmological. The tiny bit of mass and energy that allows us to stand up, walk around and think we are unique yearns to be reunited with the stardust from which is was separated. And it will be. Being unique means being separated from everything else because that’s what unique is -- different. But there will come a time for each of us when we will no longer be a stranger. I leave it to you to decide if that is cause for mourning or for joy.