Showing Up: A Shabbat Drash on Parashat Vayeitzei
By: Jess Reynolds
When we last checked in on our patriarch, Jacob, he was busy pretending to be someone he wasn’t in order to make his mother happy and gain his father’s blessing. In this week’s Torah portion, we catch up with Jacob after he makes a hasty exit from his family home in fear for his life. His first night on his own, Jacob finds a stone to rest his head upon and has a beautiful dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that stretches from earth to the heavens.
I can certainly empathize with Jacob in some ways. As a queer and trans person, I wasted a lot of years pretending to be someone or something I wasn’t in order to make others happy. Even so, my family’s blessing was always just slightly out of reach. I too fled home in order to save my life. There were no prophetic dreams of angels – just Los Angeles, the City of Angels – a place to create a new life, a new home, and a new family for myself. That first night on a college dorm bed did feel a lot like sleeping on a rock, though.
What do I mean about needing to leave to save my life? I didn’t have a wrathful twin brother to run from like Jacob did. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m more of a “do-it-yourselfer” about most things. By the time I left home, I already had one suicide attempt under my belt. Staying in an unsupportive, abusive environment would only have lead to more. They say that practice makes perfect, but this didn’t seem like the ideal situation in which to test that out. It’s a sad time in my life to look back on, but it’s certainly not out of the ordinary. Compared to a 4.6% suicide attempt rate in the general population, the figures are 41% for transgender people in general, and 43% for non-binary people – that is to say, people whose gender identity isn’t exclusively male or female – like myself.
Today we observe Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day to honor the memory of the trans people we’ve lost to violence in the past year. These murders are also unfortunately not out of the ordinary. They happen in the context of the many types of violence that transgender people are disproportionately subjected to: bullying, family rejection, homelessness, poverty, lack of educational and employment opportunities, lack of adequate medical care, physical and sexual assault, and criminalization, just to name a few. Most of the people whose names we’ll be reading later were killed not solely because they were transgender, but because they were the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable community. Racism, misogyny, ableism, classism, etc. – these are all ways that society dehumanizes and devalues children of G-d. A transgender life lived at the intersection of multiple oppressions is all too often shorter than it could and should be.
A fair bit later in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob and his uncle, Laban, strike up a deal. Jacob, after many years of faithful service, is to be given the speckled and spotted animals of his uncle’s flock so that he may provide for his own growing family. Torah doesn’t always regard the speckled, spotted, and blemished of the animal kingdom very highly. One such example is the sacrificial red heifer, which the Mishnah states is unable to be offered if it has as many as two black hairs. Jacob, however, is a little more forward thinking in this regard. With a little faith and some tricky animal husbandry practices, he produces speckled and spotted sheep and goats that become the finest, strongest animals in the flock.
I personally can’t make it past the mention of a spotted animal without thinking of another favorite Jewish text of mine:
Spotty by Margret and H.A. Rey. Most famous for their Curious George books, the Reys were German-born Jews who were living in Paris in June 1940. They escaped the city, by riding bicycles that Hans Rey pieced together from spare parts, just hours before it fell to the Nazis.
I first encountered Spotty about five years ago. It was a fine Christmas Day in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I was visiting The City in my yearly attempt to avoid my feelings about being a queer orphan for the holidays, like you do. I walked around the corner and spied the original artwork for this page, and there were all the feelings I’d been trying to hide from.
I was that bunny. Spotty is a spotted bunny born into an unspotted family. After being excluded from a family party because no one wanted to upset Grandpa, Spotty unsuccessfully tries this spot remover trick and then decides it’s easier for everyone if he just runs away from home. It takes a visit to the Twilight Zone version of his family
for everyone to realize how silly they’ve been – that all of their children are beautiful just the way they are.
I’d like to propose a theory: that there is no such thing as “unspotted.” There are things about each of us that have been used to make us feel less than worthy in the world. When we are able to truly see, accept, and embrace those things about ourselves and about each other, those things that make us each unique and wonderful creations, our “spots” are transformed. Battle scars become beauty marks. They multiply and grow until it’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins. They become echad – they become one – and we become whole.
May the trans siblings we’ve lost this year rest in peace and power. And may we continue to strive for a world of abundance where every bunny has a seat at the table.