This Shabbat’s portion is Va-yetzei, Hebrew for “and he left,” and he, Jacob, did leave Beer-sheba, and set out for Charan, which on a good day would be a 500 mile walk. Jacob, of course, at nightfall made a bed and slept, and then according to the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”
This was one of my favorite passages when I was a kid, I was an imaginative one, and I always pictured a giant escalator, like the one at the mall. With angels going up and down, chatting all the way like I did with my own friends. When this portion turned out to be the one for tonight, I thought about this imagery and imagined what I would write. Would I focus on the ladder to heaven motif that has long been attached to all forms of art and literature. Or would I focus on the angels, such a small part of the Parsha, but so very important.
As a trans person, I would like to think that angels are among us every day, from the moment we wake up, to the time we make our beds. I would like to think that angels are not bound by place and space, but transcend limits and boundaries. In essence, angels are a lot like trans folk.
The Hebrew word for angel, "mal'ach," means messenger and that is what they do for G!d. They are in essence an anthropomorphized human face of a G!d that we cannot see with the naked eye. When Jacob sees the angels traveling up and down the ladder he knows that this is a moment within sacred time and space that needs to be recognized. A touch point in space and place, and he says "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it." And he was afraid, and said, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” These touch points in our lives are numerous. I can’t count how many times I have felt the presence of G!d and angels in a holy space.
Back in 2007 while boarding a plane returning from a Transgender Leadership Summit in LA, I happened to sit down next to an angel. Her name was Alexis Rivera and she was both a force of nature and a fierce trans woman. We talked for quite awhile about our lives, our families, and we talked about next steps in our activism after the amazing summit. She was flying to San Francisco to work at the Transgender Law Center, and I was returning home to my various trans related commitments. It was a friendship born, and an amazing bridge between our cultures and communities was built that afternoon. When she passed away last year I remember recounting this feeling to a room of her family and friends at her memorial, and watching people’s heads nod in affirmation of what I already knew. That it is possible that angels also come in human form, because messengers don’t always travel by ladder, sometimes they travel by plane through SFO.
There is some debate among the great Jewish philosophers such as Nachmanides asking whether the angels that the Torah describes as appearing actually assumed a visible physical form, i.e. as humans, or Maimonides asking if they appeared in the course of a spiritual vision or prophecy—in which the angels appeared as physical beings. In my view both opinions are valid and worthy of praise, in my own trans theology, we are all angels, G!d’s messengers touching others lives and creating ripples that change people whom we may have not even met yet.
There are people that I did not know that shaped my transition from female-to-male medically, hormonally, and spiritually. In each instance I was lost and without direction, and some part of their writing, or presence was a mirror of my very soul, and became, for me, that holy space and place. In fact, during the Trans Religious Summit at the beginning of this month, I was at a reading for Balancing on the Mechitza, when I felt like that ladder had descended from heaven and there were angels among us at the Oakland JCC. All of that love, understanding, and those people pushing for further understanding was palpable.
Do angels still appear to us, of course the do. In the form of amazing people who impress upon us that we must strive for a better understanding of it all. You may not know it, but you are a very special angel to someone. The people that you have touched probably don’t know how to tell you, or maybe they do not recognize it quite yet, and like Jacob will wake up and find their voice to declare the time and place of your meeting holy. The people that we will remember tonight also created ripples, and touched people who may not have known them personally.
In a moment, I will ask those of you in with cards to stand up and read the names and information about those trans people ripped from our communities. We read these names as a remembrance for those who knew them, and those who were touched by their lives. This Trans Remembrance Shabbat has been around almost as long at the TDoR itself, fostered by people within the Sha’ar Zahav community, and codified in our Siddur Sha’ar Zahav.
This community itself has made those ripples in sacred time and space to create and foster this trans community. To me that is one of the reasons that I love this Sha'ar Zahav community so much, and one of the reasons that I stay here in the Bay Area. Let us all listen to the messages from the angels that G!d sends to let us know that which is needed.
Through listening to Alexis, and others that G!d sends, I am constantly transformed into a better person, a better father, and a fierce advocate for equal rights. All our struggles should be bound up together in any society that strives to be just, and freedom and justice without equality are hollow gestures. These are the lessons learned from Alexis, and all of my messengers, because the angels in my life are as numerous as the stars themselves.
Ken yehi ratzon, may it be G!d's will.