Yitro: Strangers in a Strange Land

For Congregation Ner Shalom, February 1, 2013.

I spent this last month as a stranger in a strange land. I had a two and a half week gig in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with an additional week tacked on in the lovely mountain town of Ajijic. I walked a funny line between belonging and not belonging, between distance and familiarity. We do this Puerto Vallarta gig every year. I know my way around; I know street names and some faces and where to get fresh vegetables. And then there’s always the new and strange; this time, for instance, how to manage sickness and fever and find the larger-than-life Doctor Lupita and her hypodermic full of good mystery drugs.

My Spanish is good; I can declare in the declarative, and speculate in the subjunctive. I speak better than I understand; but still I fared better in Mexico than I did yesterday morning at Friendly Kitchen in Rohnert Park, when a patron glanced at the newspaper and remarked to me, “Those 49ers sure are” followed by 15 or so words that almost certainly had something to do with the Super Bowl; words that I undoubtedly know individually, but which, when fused together in a wave of football jargon, left me utterly bewildered. I didn’t understand his words but his desire for a bond of familiarity with me was clear. “Yeah,” I said, nodding, hoping that that was all that would be required of me. I was home, but still a stranger.

This week’s Torah portion seems to have a lot to say about strangeness and familiarity, distance and proximity. The portion is called Yitro, named after Moshe’s father-in-law. The Children of Israel are in the Wilderness, having escaped from Egypt, familiar turf in which they were treated as strangers. Now they are strangers in an unfamiliar land, led by a prophet who is also a stranger, having never been a slave alongside them, and by a God who does not resemble the Egyptian gods; who doesn’t resemble, well, anything.

At the top of the parashah, Moshe receives his father-in-law, who arrives with Moshe’s wife and two sons. The text then reminds us of the sons’ names and their etymology. The younger son is Eliezer, meaning “my God is my help.” And Gershom, the older, means “a stranger there.” Moshe named him that because, as he famously said, “I was a stranger in a strange land.”

Gershom and Eliezer. “Stranger in a strange land” and “God is my help.” Strangerhood and help. Alienation and embrace. Distance and familiarity. These are the polestars by which the Children of Israel navigated through the wilderness and by which Jews have wandered through an alien world for millennia, so much so that our sense of exile has become a dominant theme in our self-concept; giving rise to Messianism and to Zionism and to puzzlement when my children seem, mysteriously, to fit in just fine. Alienation and embrace: the competing forces that tug on each of our souls – the feeling of being alone; and the desire to feel that we are not.

The themes of strangeness and familiarity continue to haunt the portion. God is about to impart the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. God says, in what sounds like a marriage proposal, “You will be my special treasure, my beloved people.” And the people respond, saying, “Whatever God says, we will do.” But this communication is not direct; Moshe carries the messages up and back like Miles Standish for John and Priscilla.

Then God demands that a distance be established around the revelation. First, a distance of time: three days between now and then, during which the people must prepare, immersing themselves and even their clothes as in a mikveh. Then, a perimeter of space: a boundary around the mountain, the crossing of which by anyone other than Moshe will result in a sentence of death.

Be my love. But not so close. Maybe the enforced separation is specifically to build the tension. Like couples staying apart before their wedding. And marriage is in fact the underlying metaphor here. Immersion in the mikveh; words of oath. And isn’t marriage about transitioning from the idea of Gershom to that of Eliezer, about strangers becoming each other’s familiar support?

So God descends – and Moshe ascends – to the mountaintop. Proximity. God sends Moshe back down to reinforce the perimeter. Distance. And then God gives the Ten Commandments, reciting them like wedding vows under the chupah of cloud and smoke.

Alienation and God’s embrace. I wonder about the tension between these two ideas. They seem so antithetical but so tightly connected. Does one require the other? When God first enters into relationship with Abraham, generations earlier, what was God’s demand? “Leave your home and go to a strange land.” Maybe the journey together into an unfamiliar landscape is what creates or cements a bond, experiencing strangerhood together. God and Abraham, Thelma and Louise, Butch and Sundance. After all, you never know someone as well as you do after a road trip.

Our human experience is a relentless road trip. After you leave your mother’s womb and your parents’ arms, you are on your own, with no map and no spare change for the fast food joints. Even if you live and die in the very house you were born in, you are always walking a wilderness, because time is that kind of road. You can’t see around the next bend. You change. You grow. Your body ages and so does your mind. Your circumstances change, and the people around you, and the world. We are constant strangers. How are we ever to feel safe? How are we ever to feel anything but alone?

Loneliness is a great source of longing and of action. Loneliness must be the reason we invented God; or else it is the reason God invented us. We need this relationship with the great Infinite, whether we ascribe to that infinity a personality or not, to feel familiar. To feel that despite the odds and despite all evidence, it has our back. Intimacy us how we keep ourselves – and God – from being overwhelmed by fear as we journey forward. As the Psalm says, gam ki elech b’gey tzalmavet, lo ira ra ki atah imadi. Though I walk through a valley shadowed by death, I won’t fear if you are with me.

The desire to be cared for is reasonable. So how do we make it happen? How do we bring about God’s care, God’s help, in the face of our sense of aloneness? The mystic, Rabbi Joseph Cordovero, said 500 years ago that by our own actions, acting with chesed – with kindness – toward the suffering of the stranger, we bring down that same quality of kindness in the Divine. Imitate what you want from God and it will manifest for you as well. Or translated into practical terms, kindness begets kindness.

Which then sounds less mystical and downright Reconstructionist. We are God’s hands in bringing about compassion in this world. We know how to care for the stranger. Torah tells us no fewer than 36 times. Empathizing with how a stranger feels can set your compassion in motion. Imagining how the person sitting next to you might feel like a stranger at this moment; that might invoke your protectiveness and your care. Of course, sometimes we can’t find our compassion for the stranger; not every stranger is equally lovable. So we try our best and then offer ourselves some compassion for having felt like a lost wanderer in that effort.

So what else? How else might we experience the closeness of the Divine though we feel like strangers?

The parashah gives us a little clue at the end. After announcing all the Ten Commandments, amidst thunder and smoke and the sound of horns, God and Moshe spirit off for a little post-mortem or, perhaps this weekend, I should say a little Monday morning quarterbacking. God revisits the commandment not to make any graven images, and expands on it. God says, “Tell the Children of Israel not to make any gods of silver or any gods of gold. Instead, make me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it; in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.”

In other words, I think, don’t go chasing after God; don’t try to tame God by making rigid reductions of Divinity out of gold or silver. How, after all, can you force the great mystery of this Universe into such a limited form, whether made of a precious metal or an unyielding and too-small theology? Instead, don’t try to capture God at all. Keep your altar simple. Made of your own earth, your own life. Offer up your thanks or your wonder or your need. Mention God. And wait. Sit back, and let the Mystery introduce itself to you, so you can be on a first name basis with it.

Gershom and Eliezer might be among the names offered. I am a stranger and will always be. And still, I am held by God. These are my names. These are all of our names. And these are both true.

May we all journey our journeys without fear, without panic. And may we be open to the familiar and comforting touch of the Great Mystery, whenever and however it happens.