Parashat Vayishlah 5782

Bless People by Their Names
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlah
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

This week is Transgender Awareness Week, an opportunity for trans folks to celebrate themselves and for allies to educate themselves and uplift the voices of the too often silenced queer community. The week culminates in the observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th. Transgender people, especially trans women of color, are disproportionately affected by hate violence, ranging from harassment to murder; according to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 45 trans people have been killed through violent means in 2021. Additionally, trans people are more likely than cisgender people to express suicidal ideation or to actually commit suicide. All this leads to the necessity of a Transgender Day of Remembrance to hold vigils for those lost due to the violent transphobia in our country and world, as well as the need for a Transgender Awareness Week to try to decrease this hatred going forward.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob wrestles with an ish – translated as “man” but often understood as “angel”. He seems to come out of nowhere, attack Jacob with no cause or end goal, and when he sees that he is not winning he says, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” Is he a vampire? Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” (Genesis 32:27). So the ish – man, angel, vampire – blesses Jacob and bestows upon him a new name, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed,” (Genesis 32:29). Throughout the rest of the TaNaKh, Jacob is referred to fairly interchangeably with the name Israel.

Rabbi David Kimchi, also known as the RaDaK, teaches that the verse, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob,” in actuality means, “Your name shall no longer be only Jacob,” and he gives some other textual references where simplistic negative phrasing is used to communicate a “not only” meaning. “This helps explain the many occasions later when this original name is applied to him,” RaDaK says, “as distinct from the name change of Avram to Avraham.” Similarly, some trans folks may use different names and pronouns on different days or be altogether ambivalent about what their friends and family call them, while others feel adamant about their new names and true pronouns. One does not give cover to misgender or deadname the other.

Among their resources for Transgender Awareness Week, GLAAD shares that not only are trans people at higher risk to be victims of violence, often that violence is not taken seriously. In addition to criminal neglect from law enforcement (Islan Nettles was beaten to death right in front of Police Service Area 6 in Harlem but no officers intervened; Titi Gulley was lynched but her death was ruled a suicide at first without investigation), news media outlets often report on these stories with the victim’s deadname, incorrect pronouns, or a complete misunderstanding of the nature of being transgender. GLAAD calls this phenomenon “Doubly Victimizing,” as the reality of the crime and the victim are lost when their true identities or the cause of the violence against them are obfuscated in this way.

It’s clear in this week’s parasha, and in many parts of the Torah, that names matter. They communicate a deep sense of identity and spirituality, and name changes in the Torah are treated with reverence, even when the new name is not used to the exclusion of the previous name, such as with Jacob/Israel. We learn from this to respect pronouns and call people what they want to be called, to defend our trans siblings from transphobes who misgender them, and to advocate for justice and inclusion for people of all genders and gender presentations. May we live to see a world where Transgender Day of Remembrances are less necessary, where legal name and pronoun changes are made accessible to more people, and where all people are given space to be their unapologetically true selves.

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.