This week's Torah portion begins, "Va-yetzei Ya'akov," which is typically translated as "Jacob left" or "Jacob departed" (Gen. 28:10). But the root of the Hebrew verb y-tz-a is significant; it is the same as in the "Motzi" blessing for bread ("brings forth") and "Yetzi'at mitzrayim," the Exodus from Egypt. According to Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the true meaning of this phrase: "Va-yetzei Ya'akov" is "And Jacob came out."
For both contemporary and classical commentators alike, it is not a stretch to read Jacob as a queer character. Like the trickster in folklore, Jacob is the marginal figure who lives on wits and subterfuge to control his stronger brother. Defying masculine stereotypes, known for his soft skin and domesticated ways, we read last week of Jacob's attempt to pass as his older brother Esau in order to secure his father's blessing.
When he realizes that his father knows the truth, Jacob runs from his home...Va-yetzei Ya'akov...And Jacob comes out. For queer and trans people, coming out is both a formative moment and an iterative process of identity development. But it is not exclusively for queer and trans people. The Torah is full of ancestral coming out moments. God says to Abram, Lech Lech - Go to yourself, Come out to yourself. Leave your comfort zone and your family's expectations and your preconceived notions of what a life might look like, and go become yourself.
In his book Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, "Judaism declares that a person stands at the crossroads and wonders about the path they shall take. Before them there is an awesome alternative - the image of God...herein is embodied the entire task of creation and the obligation to participate in the renewal of the cosmos...The most fundamental principle of all," Soleveitchik writes, "is that a person must create themself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world."
Va-yetzei Ya'akov - And Jacob came out.
Next week we will read of Jacob's wrestling with an angel in which he is blessed and renamed Yisra'el. Yet another moment of coming out and self-formation from which we all descend.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn concludes, "The story of Jacob lends itself to being read as a classic coming-out narrative, but even if were were to retell it stripped of its campy details, the story remains appealing because of its truth and resonance with so much of human experience: the yearning to uncover and realize the authentic self...and the lifelong tasks of acceptance, integration, and connection." (Torah Queeries, p. 45).
As we enter the shabbat that precedes Trans Day of Remembrance/Resilience, I am a grateful to be part of a religious community in which so many of us feel safe and seen and able to come out. I do not take that for granted. And more so, to be part of a community in which so many of us have left some aspect of our ancestral homes, constantly coming out and into ourselves, in search of acceptance, integration, and connection.
Wherever we are on our journeys, may we each of us have a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.