Last fall, after years of estrangement from my small-town synagogue, I was invited to give a dvar Torah to re-introduce myself to the congregation. Though I knew I would know most of the people in the pews, I knew that most wouldn’t recognize me. When they had seen me last, I had been a father surrounded by children. Now, after gender transition and divorce, I was returning as a woman alone. But though they wouldn’t know me by sight, they would have heard the stories about the particularly gossip-worthy breakup of my marriage — stories of how I had abandoned my wife of almost thirty years and my three school-age children because I had “chosen a lifestyle” (that’s what people who don’t understand transsexuality call it) that consisted of dressing up in women’s clothes and medically altering my body. Not only was I returning to the congregation as a stranger; I was returning as something strange.
This was my chance to tell the story my way, to explain why I had unmade the man they had known, the man my family had depended upon and loved — and, in the process, betrayed deep-seated assumptions about gender and the relationships I had built upon them — in the name of becoming someone who had never existed.
The Torah has little to say about transsexuality, but it has a lot to say about people who do hard-to-explain and sometimes terrible things in order to be true to themselves. My personal archetype was Jacob. I had never liked Jacob, but even as a child I recognized his life as an uncomfortably apt metaphor for mine: an effeminate boy who has to dress up like his hairy hunter brother Esau and deceive his aged father in order to receive the blessing that the accident of his birth denied him. Like Jacob, I wasn’t the boy my parents meant to bless, and like Jacob, I found it heartbreakingly easy to pass myself off as someone I wasn’t: as long as I kept my hair short and wore pants and shirts, no one could see the girl cowering underneath.
Not only did Jacob’s story of family deception fit the frightened child I had been; in Jacob’s theft of his father’s blessing, I recognized the moral paradoxes embodied in my transition to living as a woman. Like me, Jacob was born into an identity that didn’t fit. Jacob is a first-born son trapped in a second-born’s body, and only by flouting law, convention and family ties can he become the person — the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel — he was meant to be. The Torah portrays Jacob’s drive to usurp his brother Esau as the inheritor of his father’s relationship to God as Divine destiny, foretold to his mother Rebecca as an oracular explanation of her difficult pregnancy. If Jacob doesn’t steal the blessing that represents the relationship to God from which and for which the Jewish people grew, he — and his descendants — will never become Israel.
Yet even when I was a child, I knew that Jacob’s need to become his true self didn’t excuse his betrayal of his father and brother. However exalted Jacob’s or God’s historical ends, the means by which Jacob becomes himself are inexcusably, unarguably wrong. In stealing the blessing that his blind father, approaching death, wishes to bestow on Esau, Jacob perverts the very basis of love and family. Jacob’s deception breaks his father’s heart, precipitates a decades-long exile during which his mother dies without ever seeing her perhaps too-beloved son again, and, most importantly, wrenches tears from his brother that are so deeply felt that even sages who otherwise excoriate Esau as an archetype of Rome and other oppressors are moved and disturbed by them.
On a personal level, I understand — too well — the familial agony that is the cost of Jacob’s becoming. But why is this the story the Torah tells about the origins of the Jewish people? Why is the story of the blessing Jacob won — and passed down to the people of Israel — a story of betrayal, bitterness, and dispossession?
The blessing Isaac pronounces over Jacob, who will soon be renamed “Israel,” emphasizes military and political domination: “Let peoples serve you, / And nations bow down to you; / Be master over your brothers” (Gen. 27:29). But the Torah makes clear that this is Isaac’s interpretation. In the blessing that God entrusts to Isaac in the previous chapter, Israel’s domination over “peoples,” “nations,” and “brothers” is presented as part of a greater mission:
I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens;
and will give to your offspring all these lands;
and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring.
This blessing combines three promises. The first is the promise that Isaac’s offspring will be multiplied from a small family into a numerous people; the second is that this people will take possession of “all these lands,” the lands of Canaan currently occupied by many other peoples. For many Jews, the blessing that blossomed into the Jewish people essentially ends here: God has promised to give our people “all these lands,” and, since God is both Creator of the Earth and the basis of Jewish morality, there is no need to consider those who are dispossessed by the fulfillment of this promise. Like Jacob’s theft of Isaac’s blessing, possession of these lands is not only Divine destiny, it is existential necessity: this is what the Jewish people must do to become ourselves.
But in the blessing God gives to Isaac, these two promises are steps toward a third: “all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring.” According to this promise, all the nations of the earth — including those displaced by our possession of “all these lands” — are to “bless themselves” by us, to look to the Jewish people and say, “May God make us like them.” According to this verse — a verse often echoed later in the Torah, as God charters the people of Israel not as an end in ourselves but as “a nation of priests” and “a light to the nations” — the promise of the Jewish people cannot be fulfilled unilaterally, at the expense of other nations: we will only have fulfilled our Divinely entrusted promise when “all the nations of the earth … bless themselves” by us.
The contradictory terms of this blessing — the promise that after we dispossess others, those we have dispossessed will bless themselves by us — directly foreshadows the conflict between the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland to which we are entitled by basic human rights, ancient deed and centuries of persecution, and the reality that the promise of our homeland was fulfilled by dispossessing Palestinian people who had lived there for centuries. (The contemporary resonance of this story was recently noted on Tikkun Daily by Rosemary H. Hayes, who also argued that the story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau can help us understand and untangle the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.) Jacob’s theft of Esau’s blessing shattered his family and broke his brother’s heart. Like Jacob, we have won our blessing at the cost of others’ anguish, and we have a lot of work to do — awful truths to face, painful sacrifices to make, terrifying risks to take — before Palestinians can begin to see us as a blessing rather than a curse.
In short, to fulfill God’s promise to our people, we must tell the story of ourselves in a way that affirms our need for a homeland without denying the Palestinian pain and displacement that our becoming has caused. As I know from my own experience, it is hard to tell the story of becoming oneself without erasing the moral costs of becoming, without casting ourselves as unambiguous victims or heroes. We are, after all, doing what we need to do — what God made us to do. But in the story of Jacob stealing the blessing that made us a people, the Torah shows us Jacob’s triumph mirrored in the tears of Esau — a mirror in which ends, even ends decreed by God, cannot justify or efface the pain we inflict to achieve them.
If we refuse to recognize ourselves in the story of Jacob, we cease to be children of Israel; if we embrace the first two components of God’s blessing but turn our backs on the third, we turn a Divine mission to serve humanity into a self-serving justification of our own actions and interests.
And as painful as it may be to trace our identity as a people back to Jacob’s stolen blessing, when we do, we find a hope that is missing from stories of who we are that deny the pain we have inflicted in fulfilling the promise of our homeland. Esau is so enraged by Jacob’s theft that he swears to kill him. But when the brothers meet again after many years, and Jacob takes pains to affirm his brother’s position and offer reparations for his pain, Esau meets Jacob — now Israel, surrounded by his children — not with murder, but with a kiss.
I don’t know how many people could hear the dvar Torah through which I re-introduced myself to the congregation that had known me as a man, because I started crying after the first few sentences. I don’t know if they understood — I don’t know if I understand — the terrible drive to become that drove me to undertake a transition that destroyed my marriage and broke my children’s hearts. I don’t know if anyone there knew, as Jacob and I knew, the loneliness and terror of living in someone else’s skin, or the relief of finally standing before others, even those whose tears we caused, as the people we really are. All I know is that the moment I choked out my final words, people who had embraced the man I wasn’t rushed to the bimah to embrace the sobbing, shaking woman I am.