A Journey of Becoming: Parsha Lech Lecha

“When someone calls me Jasper, my shoulders drop, my heart rate settles, hearing my name is a sign, a confirmation that an individual, a group, a society accepts my current self and who I am growing to be.” 

Jasper is a 17-year-old trans male. When he was assigned female at birth, he was given female names, in both English and Hebrew. I recently officiated a Jewish renaming ceremony for Jasper at Natural Bridges beach in Santa Cruz. We said goodbye to his former Hebrew name and he took on a new one, a name that represents his truest self. 

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Avram to lech lecha. “Lech Lecha, from your birthplace and your father’s house.” The words “Lech Lecha” are often mistranslated as “go forth.” A more accurate translation is “go to yourself.” For Avram, this journey will be both external and internal. Avram leaves his father’s house and his native land, and he transforms from the person he was, to the person he is meant to be. Once he arrives, Avram receives a new name. “You shall no longer be called Avram,” says God, “your name shall be Avraham, for I will make you a father of multitudes.” The name change represents the person Avraham has become – and the journey of his becoming.

Why does God tell Avraham to leave his birthplace and his father’s house? These two leavings appear redundant on the surface. But I think this is God’s way of acknowledging that for Avraham to lech lecha, he has to leave more than just a place behind. Avraham also leaves the religion and culture of his father, an idol worshipper. He leaves family, friends, and the life he’d always known. Avraham smashes his father’s idols before he leaves. When we embark on a journey to become our truest selves, relationships shatter along the way. Our ideas of reality may shatter too. 

Similarly, when someone acknowledges that their gender identity is different from the identity they were assigned at birth, they leave behind more than just a name. It means saying goodbye to a narrative – a story of what they imagined their lives to be. There is a loss of some kind when our narratives change, even when they change for the best. And while some families, like Jasper’s, are supportive and loving, other families shatter irreparably, like the idols and narrative Avraham left behind.

Using Parsha Lech Lecha as an example, we can begin to understand why calling a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by as much as 65%. Avraham’s journey toward himself cost him relationships, his narrative, and more. He’s given a new name that more fully represents his identity, and calling him “Avram” not only negates the truth of who he became; it also disrespects the growth, learning, and changes Avraham experienced, the journey he had to take, deep into himself, before he could live into his new name. 

“Deadnaming,” using the name given to a transgender person at birth, regardless of intention, is painful. Jasper still gets deadnamed sometimes, “mainly accidentally,” he says. “I understand it may be difficult to make the change after knowing me with another name for so long. What matters is that one makes an effort to use my proper name. My deadname is a reminder of a person I never was. A reminder of a hurting time, a lost time, a time I work so hard to forget. My deadname is a label of an idea of an individual, a label of an individual who existed painfully and hidden, and at the same time didn’t exist at all.” If we wouldn’t call Avraham, “Avram,” we shouldn’t deadname transpeople either. 

Jasper’s Hebrew renaming ceremony took place right before Rosh Hashanah. He chose the name Nitzan, the Hebrew word for “bud.” It represents beginnings, a flower’s first steps toward blooming. When our ancestor received the name “Avraham,” it represented not only the person he became, but also his journey becoming. The name “Nitzan” also tells the story of a journey, a bud that has cracked open his shell, and burst forth from the soil, ready to open to the world anew. 

As we enter Shabbat this week, reflecting on our own moments of lech lecha, remember that, in a way, many of us have been on a long journey, have survived the shattering of relationships, facing untold pain and loss, simply to show up as ourselves. Learning names and pronouns, and making the effort to use them, not only tells transgender people that you see them for who they are, here and now. It honors the journey they took, like Avraham, to arrive at their truest, deepest selves. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May we rejoice, every day, in the journeys that bring us closer to each other and ourselves.

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A Line in the Sand: Parsha Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion includes a line that has possibly caused more pain and harm than just about any other verse in the Torah: “V’et-zakar lo-tishkav mishkevey ishshah; toevah hi.” The most familiar translation of this line is “You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman, it is toevah.” Toevah is often translated as “forbidden.” It’s a boundary that cannot be crossed.

Leviticus 18:22 has been used – and is still used – to justify cruelty toward LGBTQ individuals. Just last month, Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical program, decided not to ordain one of their rabbinical students because he is gay. When he came out three and a half years ago, he asked YCT if they would still ordain him. They said that they would, and then last month, they changed their minds, choosing this boundary, Leviticus 18:22, over a student who dedicated years of study toward becoming a rabbi at their institution. They saw the place where halacha (Jewish law) and human life collide, and they drew a line in the sand between the two. What happens when someone reaches across that line and holds out a hand? What happens when boundaries are broken?

Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shauvot are known as the Omer, and each week is associated with an aspect of God’s soul – and our souls: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (boundaries), Tiferet (harmony), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation) and Malchut (sovereignty). Each day within each week is associated with one of these seven aspects as well. This Shabbat is the 14th day of the Omer, and we spent this week in the world of Gevurah, of boundaries.

We all know boundaries are important. We set boundaries on our time. We set boundaries between personal and professional. In the caring professions, we strive for emotional boundaries, so we don’t lose ourselves in other people’s stories. Boundaries tell children that they can trust the adults in their lives. Boundaries keep people safe – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

So how do we respond to a boundary like Leviticus 18:22? In my 10 years as a Jewish communal professional, I’ve seen it all. Some abandon religion forever, saying “If that’s one line your holy book, I don’t want the rest of its pages.” Some find a different way to interpret the words, struggling to make the ancient law fit our contemporary sensibilities. Others decide to take the parts of Judaism they like, and discard the rest. They may call themselves “cultural Jews” or “Jew-ish,” as if to specify that they’re not like “those other Jews” who are “more traditional” or “more religious.” As an aside, while I support people in defining their Judaism however they’d like, I don’t think any person making informed, Jewish decisions about their boundaries is any “less religious,” but that’s a topic for another day.

I recently read responses from multiple Jewish movements to see how they addressed the boundary set by Leviticus 18:22. In North America, Reform Rabbis have officiated same-sex marriages since 2000. The Conservative movement followed suit in 2012, reversing a 2006 decision that Conservative rabbis could not officiate same-sex marriages. The most interesting response to me was a dissenting opinion from three Conservative rabbis in 2006. Rabbis Geller, Fine, and Fine detailed examples of other moments when rabbis agreed on a change in halachic interpretation: “Just as the ancient Israelites could not envision a world without slavery,” they said, “so could they not imagine a society where two men or two women could live together in a recognizable consecrated relationship and raise children. Just as the Rabbis understood that monetary interest could no longer be considered usury in a currency-based economy, so do we understand that same-sex relationships can no longer be considered toevah.” For these three rabbis, it was time to break the boundary, even though the rest of their leadership chose to uphold it.

I am heartened by the efforts of organizations like JQY and Eshel, which support Orthodox LGBTQ Jews. JQY raised enough money for the former YCT rabbinical student to pursue independent ordination in Israel. I’m also heartened by the promises of Rabbis Avram Mlotek and Daniel Silverstein, Orthodox alumni of YCT, who just became the first Orthodox rabbis to announce that they will now officiate Orthodox same-sex marriages. This was their response to the boundary set by YCT after they refused to ordain the student. It’s a step in the right direction, though they didn’t quite break the boundary. Both rabbis specified that the weddings would not be kiddushin, so they will not be seen as Jewishly legal.

How do we decide when a boundary should be broken in our own lives, like the Reform rabbis did in 2000? How do we decide when a boundary should be compromised instead, like Rabbi Mlotek and Rabbi Silverstein, deciding to officiate same-sex weddings for Jews, while refusing to call them halachic Jewish marriages?

Whatever decision you reach, one thing is certain: Boundaries are opportunities to ask ourselves really important questions. When halacha and human life collide, and someone draws a line in the sand, it’s important to remember that sand can blow away. Even massive boulders erode over time. A boundary means that two ideas are close enough to press up against each other, jostling for space in a crowded world. It’s on us to decide when and how to change our boundaries, even the ones that make us feel safe. All boundaries help us decide what really matters, and allow us to see where our edges can soften.

I’ll conclude with a poem that I wrote in honor of this week’s omer theme, and perhaps this coming week, you can consider where your own boundaries and soft edges live, and think about when it’s time to move that line in the sand.

The One Who Separates
day from night
sea from sky
and sky from the branches
who reach for her

also created horizons,
roots, wings,
and twilight

teaching us,
when our hands touch,
that the precipice
between one and another
is also a window

every boundary an opportunity
to connect with something sacred

Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives the Israelites instructions for the creation of the first mishkan, the first sanctuary for prayer. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Eleven chapters later, we read that the Israelites have brought too much: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded.” Moses tells the people to stop bringing these gifts, because it was enough, v’hoter. V’hoter means “and left over” – the people brought so much to the Mishkan that it could not all be used for the project.

It was so human of them, this eagerness. They tried so hard to please the Holy One that they brought too much at once. Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of the 65,000 teddy bears that showed up in Newtown, CT, just one week after the Sandy Hook massacre. Kind, good-hearted people, grieving for the murder of so many children, channeled their grief into gifts. It was well-intentioned, but it was more about their own pain than the needs of the community. Unfortunately, it was far too much for the town to handle, and one man was left with the task of managing $27,000 worth of toys that the children of Newtown truly didn’t need. He had to purchase 80,000 feet of storage space, which filled up quickly with more unnecessary gifts – v’hoter, leftover. Ultimately, it went to good use: The community decided to ship boxes of toys to orphanages.

Every day, we face countless opportunities to help – it can seem like the world is overflowing with needs, on both a personal and a communal level. Sometimes we are so quick to fix, to respond, to act, that we don’t consider what type of response is best, or how much action is necessary. The pain is too much to take in, so we act quickly, trying to heal our own wounded hearts as well as the wounds of those in need. The second line of Psalm 41, a psalm we say when visiting the sick, says “Ashrei maskil el-dal,” Happy is the one who is maskil in relation to the person in need.” In a midrash on this psalm, Rav Yonah says, “What does maskil mean in this case? That the person helping truly looks and considers how to revive the person.” We have to consider what is truly required, and then make a decision about how to give, and how much.

What does it mean to build a sanctuary? How do we choose what to bring, how to pray, how to respond when there’s a call for action? Will our sanctuary be a storage room for 65,000 teddy bears, a tabernacle beside a pile of v’hoter, leftover, unused material? Will we bring what is needed, or bring too much, easing our own desires to feel or appear helpful? Or will our mishkan, our sanctuary, be a space where we can celebrate and grieve together, where we listen, truly consider, and then decide how to act? Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. As we face the complexities of the world around us, may we remember that our intentions matter, and that our actions must matter too.