Posted by: Emily | 20 July 2014

Do not say “I am still a boy.”


Wisdom from my brother Reuven.

Originally posted on eish zarah:

The first haftarah of Admonition
The haftarah of Mattot

I was at Shabbat morning services holding the torah during the reading of the haftarah and this is what formed in my mind.

Jeremiah 1:6-7

I replied
O sovereign god!
I do not know how to speak,
For I am still a boy.
And The Name said to me:
Do not say “I am still a boy.”

And behold,
The Name who formed me in the womb
Formed me anew,
The ה of the sacred name
Was added to me.
And I was no longer na’ar,
But a na’arah.
I could no longer say “I am still a boy,”
For I was a girl.

For my sister, Emily Aviva, because she is a prophetess and my Rabbah.

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Posted by: Emily | 17 July 2014

On world events and powerlessness

As I write this, another day is breaking in the Middle East. The conflict in between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is looking more and more like a full-fledged war with every passing hour. And I feel powerless.

Like many folks, I’m sure, I have had to avoid talking too much about what’s going on in Gaza because of an overwhelming sense of futility. Discussing it, by and large, seems to be a losing proposition.

Powerlessness in the face of destruction, in the face of death, in the face of a seemingly uncaring world that is too big for us to change, is not new; it has existed as long as there has been a world bigger than our own selves. Daniel, revered as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was carried into captivity in Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar, and in 586 BCE Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed. In the Biblical book which bears his name, Daniel laments his own powerlessness, and that of humanity in general, and in the form of a prayer asks God to take action:

God, incline Your ear and hear, open Your eyes and see our anguish and the desolation of the city which You have called by Your name. For we do not make our supplication to You relying on our own merit, but on Your great mercy. God, hear! God, forgive! God, listen without delay! For Your sake, my God; for it is Your name by which Your people and Your city are known. (Daniel 9:18–19)

I think this is a fascinating theological conceit. I see it in a similar tradition to how Abraham and Moses talked to God, bargaining with God, appealing not to their own merit but to why God might want to act: because all of the horrible stuff going on down below on earth reflects poorly on God above. After all, it was God who caused God’s own name to be called in the same breath as God’s creation—God’s city, God’s world, and the inhabitants of that world who call upon God for their deliverance.

It is frustrating for people like me to be sitting where we are now: in privilege and comfort in our homes, with roofs over our heads and reliable supplies of water and electricity, the sounds of gunfire and bombs not keeping us awake at night, with our families not being threatened and injured and killed, seemingly for no reason, with no way to stop it, no recourse. For us, we feel powerless, and we feel impotent. We may not be able to affect change in the Middle East except very, very distantly and indirectly: does anyone really think that, say, if I refrain from buying a SodaStream it will save the life of people in Gaza, or if I write a postcard to Israeli soldiers it will help somehow, or if I stay up until four o’clock in the morning arguing on the Internet with friends and strangers I will actually convince anyone else? And if I did, what would it avail us?

Where I find hope is in our own lives, our own communities, our own souls. The best we can do, I feel, is to channel our frustration into something productive. We may not be able to do much about the world writ large, but we can do something about our world. Give homeless folks some money instead of storming past them and averting their eyes. Put in a few hours volunteering at the food bank. Pick up some trash from the street. Gather in community. Make some art, write a poem, sing a song. Turn off your mobile phone for a while and sit in silence.

The great rabbi and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel says that Shabbat—the Sabbath—is an island in time. He doesn’t mean that it is isolated from time; it is not something you can step out of this world to go to. The temporal world still exists, and it still affects our lives. We still have to live in that world even as we try to take a step back from it on Shabbat. What Heschel means is that in the sacred space of Shabbat we can find each other and ourselves, and we can take the energy and the spirit and the beauty that we create by our presence together on Shabbat back out into the world after Shabbat.

That’s where I find hope for us: not in screaming matches on social media, not in guns or bombs, and not in wallowing in our own powerlessness. but in community, in the redemptive power of the self and the soul. We may not be able to change the world writ large, but we can do our best to change our world. It’s a thankless task, and the overwhelming chance is that we will only see small, incremental change—if any—in our own lifetimes. But it is holy work, sacred work. It is not our duty to finish the task, as the rabbinic ethical text Pirkei Avot says, but we are not free to refrain from trying. Doing that work, changing our world—that is how peace begins.

Posted by: Emily | 30 April 2014

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

Originally posted on no power in the 'verse:

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver…

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Posted by: Emily | 23 April 2014

No, HuffPostGay, you ARE the enemy

Yesterday, the Huffington Post Gay Voices (HuffPostGay) approvingly posted a video “critiquing” the “language policing” of some transgender activists—particularly Parker Marie Molloy—in reference to us, you know, not wanting to be called slurs by the drag community, in particular RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The video in question, by drag “artist” Alaska Thunderfuck, “humorously” depicts trans women as men in bad wigs with mustaches. But the “parody” of the video consists in showing a drag queen shooting a trans woman. As “parody”. The trans woman in question is a really blatantly obvious parody of Parker (and denied to be so, which is laughable).

HuffPostGay did eventually take it down and issue a pretty standard nonpology. But the damage had been done—and exacerbated.

When HuffPostGay approvingly posted this video yesterday, a number of trans women and our allies, myself included, called out the editor, Noah Michelson, for not just allowing but celebrating this shit on the website. And he doubled down: “I stand by my convictions,” he said. “You can’t shame me with your Twitter games … we both know I’m not the enemy.”

No, Noah, you are the enemy. When trans women ask cis gay men to respect us and afford us just a little human fucking decency by not using slurs or portraying us as men in bad wigs, that’s “homophobic”. When you approvingly link to a video depicting a trans woman getting shot simply for the lulz, you are the enemy. When your convictions include being offended that trans women are daring to ask for a little respect, you’re the enemy. And when you double down and attack trans women for standing up to you, rather than listening and learning, you are the enemy.

Let’s be clear: the damage was done only partly by the video itself, and only partly by the initial refusal of HuffPostGay to do anything about it, and only partly by the flippancy with which Noah Michelson replied to the people who were actually hurt by it. The root of this damage isn’t even really in “drag culture” particularly and it can’t really be laid specifically at RuPaul’s feet. The root of this damage is transmisogyny: it is the assumption that trans women are deceptive, that we are subhuman, that we deserve to be treated with disrespect and harmed and killed. Transmisogyny means that when cis gay men punch down at us, we deserve what we get. Transmisogyny means that when trans women speak up and ask for a little consideration as human beings, it’s “edgy” and “funny” to show us getting shot. All this other shit is smoke. It’s a symptom of the place trans women are told we ought to be occupying in the “queer community”—how much the more so when being a trans woman intersects with other marginalized identities. We are targets, and being a target is funny.

Cis gays, this is why we mistrust you. It’s time for y’all to pick a side. Your silence, your complacency, is hurting us. It’s killing us. Wake the fuck up to your self-appointed leadership and actually be our allies. Speak up about this. Educate yourselves and learn. Spend some time listening to us and think before you use the t-word slur or link to a video like this. Silence is complicity. Don’t be like that. Please. We’re dying here. Really.

Posted by: Emily | 20 January 2014

But I wish to be purple

This is one of my favorite bits of Greek philosophical literature. I too wish to be purple.

Διὰ τί; ὅτι σὺ σεαυτὸν ἡγῇ μίαν τινὰ εἶναι κρόκην τῶν ἐκ τοῦ χιτῶνος. τί οὖν; σὲ ἔδει φροντίζειν πῶς ἀνόμοιος ᾖς τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀνθρώποις, ὥσπερ οὐδ᾽ ἡ κρόκη πρὸς τὰς ἄλλας κρόκας θέλει τι ἔχειν ἐξαίρετον. ἐγὼ δὲ πορφύρα εἶναι βούλομαι, τὸ ὀλίγον ἐκεῖνο καὶ στιλπνὸν καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις αἴτιον τοῦ εὐπρεπῆ φαίνεσθαι καὶ καλά. τί οὖν μοι λέγεις ὅτι Ἐξομοιώθητι τοῖς πολλοῖς; καὶ πῶς ἔτι πορφύρα ἔσομαι;

Think of yourself as one thread in the cloth of a toga. One white thread is not distinguished from any other. And just so, you could live your life and be indistinguishable from everybody else. But I wish to be purple, a small bright-colored thread, which makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why should I make myself like everybody else? If I did, how would I still be purple?

From Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.17–18, my translation.

Noted philosopher, cultural critic, and bestower of opinions about things he really doesn’t understand Slavoj Žižek wrote a piece in that bastion of people opining about things they don’t really understand, the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section, in which he waxes morally and intellectually superior about the fiasco surrounding the “sign language” “interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service who was spouting repetitive nonsense. Žižek’s point is that sign language interpreters in general serve but one purpose: to make hearing people feel better about themselves by appearing inclusive. And furthermore, what this guy did doesn’t really matter anyway, because the service was just a bunch of bullshit anyway, so having a bullshit interpreter was completely appropriate! In this understanding, the message the event sent was this: We tried to appear inclusive of Deaf people, so you should be thanking us for that, but what was actually said was complete bullshit anyway so you didn’t actually miss anything!

How wrong Žižek is. How incredibly, damagingly wrong he is. He so casually dismisses the whole idea of having sign language interpreters at all, because it’s not like those Deaf and hard of hearing and hearing-impaired and other folks who depend on signing for their communication would actually like to, you know, participate in anything. Interpreters are there simply to make hearing people feel good about themselves. That’s all. What a cynical and terribly damaging way to look at things this is. In my own life, I need an interpreter to be able to understand and participate fully in events where there is a speaker speaking to a group of people. I am okay in one-on-one conversations, and if there’s some people gathered around a table or whatever, I can usually hold my own, but with varying degrees of success. Lipreading in any modality other than straight looking at someone’s face that’s not too far away is an incredible feat. (The movie 2001 makes a plot point out of HAL’s ability to read lips in profile, which—even though it’s science fiction—is nearly impossible.) But if it’s any larger than that—say, a memorial service—I need a sign language interpreter. It’s that simple.

I would bet Žižek didn’t think to check with any Deaf people or anyone who depends on sign language in order to communicate before writing this piece of shit assumption about our lives. Because to do so would have required him to step out of his customary intellectual arrogance and actually take other people’s lived experiences seriously, which is something that Academia™ sees itself as above. Žižek is simply the latest person to do this at the expense of marginalized people he knows nothing about. And the jab at the end (“you didn’t really miss much anyway because this was all just bullshit theatre”) just adds to the insult. Academia doesn’t give two shits about marginalized people except insofar as they can use us to promote their pet theories.

This is a much larger problem than this one article by this one intellectual. This is a problem with the epistemology of marginalization as envisioned in the academy in general. That last sentence is a fancy was of saying that privileged people, by and large cis, white, able-bodied, middle-class men, believe they already know everything about everyone else’s lives, so they can go off and work on their big, grand theories, and us marginalized people should just shut up and be grateful that we’re even being mentioned in the conversation at all. One sees this when we white people talk about race rather than listening to what people of color are telling us. One sees this in “gender studies” departments, where the identities of transgender people are discussed and poked and prodded and sliced apart without the participation or input of a single one of us. This is a problem with how academia looks at the lives and the experiences of marginalized people in general. Žižek’s piece is simply the latest incarnation of this problem.

The whole point of sign language interpreters is to include and enable the participation of more voices (note the audist assumptions behind that last word) than would otherwise be able to be included. I understand that interpreters are expensive and sometimes difficult to procure, but if your event doesn’t have an interpreter, I will not be able to participate as fully as I otherwise might be able to. And I’m pretty lucky: I will probably be able to participate somewhat. There are many of us out there who can’t. That’s what interpreters are there for, Slavoj. They—and we—are not there so that you can make your theoretical points while completely disregarding us and our actual lived experiences. They—and we—are not props for you to make rhetorical arguments out of while simultaneously dismissing the whole institution as the “pretense of meaning”.

Next time, ask some actual, factual Deaf people about our own goddamn lives. Then shut up and let us speak—or sign.

Posted by: Emily | 29 November 2013

Miketz 5774


My brother-by-choice Reuven wrote a few notes about tomorrow’s Torah portion, Miketz, on the pain Joseph feels at being forced to hide himself and not disclose his true identity—a pain that many of us trans and queer people know all too well.

Originally posted on eish zarah:

Making Yourself Strange And Making Yourself Know

Joseph has become the vizier of Egypt, commanding of one of the most powerful countries in the ancient world. As the vizier, Pharaoh has put him control of the grain supply during the famine he foretold. Joseph is at the height of his power and the safety of his privilege. … And then his brothers show up.

“And Joseph saw his brothers and he knew them, but he made himself strange to them….And Joseph knew his brothers, but they did not know him.” Genesis 42:7-8

… וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם; וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם

.וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו; וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ

The verb נָכַר is used four times in these two verses (and behold, I have kindly highlighted them for you)  and is usually translated as ‘know’ or ‘recognize.’ Three of those uses are in the imperfect hiphil. (Don’t worry, you have to know…

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Posted by: Emily | 18 November 2013

Al Heyt for Transgender Day of Remembrance

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a traditional confessional litany called the Al Heyt (“for the sin…”) is recited. It is written in alphabetical order, and it asks forgiveness for our community’s transgressions from God. This year, for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which my Jewish community commemorated last Shabbat, I composed a confessional of injustices that we—and I include myself among this group—commit against the transgender community, especially its most vulnerable members, trans women of color.

We have done injustice to them by ABUSE. 20% of U.S. trans people have suffered domestic violence at the hands of a family member. 50% have been physically harassed at work. 29% of trans people have been harassed or treated disrespectfully by police officers; with much higher rates reported among people of color. 20% were denied equal services, and 6% were physically assaulted by police officers. 55% have been harassed trying to access homeless shelters. Of those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12, 78% experienced harassment, 35% experienced physical assault, and 12% experienced sexual violence. And this leads to 65% of all trans people who had experienced this kind of violence attempting suicide, and exceptionally high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and survival sex work. And we shake our heads and wonder.

We have done injustice to them by BETRAYAL. Trans women of color pretty much started the modern queer rights movement at Stonewall. Yet quickly the movement was taken over by cis white gay men and lesbians, whose attitude was “we’ll come back for you”. Trans people were told to celebrate “equal marriage” in the UK when the law actually allows a spouse to veto their trans partner’s legal recognition. Trans people were told to celebrate the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US when in fact trans people can still be discharged simply for being trans, just the same as before. We tell them, “We’ll come back for you.” They wonder, “Where are you now?”

We have done injustice to them by CRIMINALIZATION. In many countries, being trans is a crime, punishable by prison or even death. Even in this country, in many places the law does not guarantee a trans person’s right to not be fired from their job simply for being trans. Even now, in California, a “liberal” state, bigots are trying, by means of a state referendum, to make it illegal for trans children to use the bathroom. And from cis allies? Silence.

We have done injustice to them by DENIAL. We deny that “cis” is a category of people because the idea checking our group’s privilege makes us uncomfortable. We pretend that trans liberation is not everyone’s issue. We refuse to accept trans people’s lived experience as true and valid until it has received the stamp of approval of cisnormative society.

We have done injustice to them by ERASURE. Transgender Day of Remembrance events are often billed to be about “LGBT people”. Transgender Day of Remembrance isn’t about “LGBT people”. It’s about predominantly trans women who are predominantly women of color. Transgender Day of Remembrance is not an occasion for a dance party or a drag show, yet that’s what some people who think it’s about “LGBT people” make it into. Each step of removal is another act of erasure, and erasure is a final act of violence against our community’s dead.

We have done injustice to them by FACTIONALISM. We pit groups of marginalized people against one another and make them fight amongst themselves for small amounts of societal approval. We pretend that “umbrella” groups actually represent the people they claim to. Nonprofits trying to do good work all fight over the same small number of grants, and then clamor to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

We have done injustice to them by GROUPTHINK. We produce orthodoxies about how things have to be done, and tell people that they don’t measure up to standards. We tell trans people that they’re doing it wrong, we give unsolicited advice and comments, and dare them to disagree. We use groupthink to reinforce existing prejudices and disenfranchise vulnerable people.

We have done injustice to them by HARASSMENT. We stare, we point, we touch without asking. We ask questions about things that are none of our business. We get offended when trans people push back about these things. We treat trans bodies as public property and expect that there will be no consequences for our actions.

We have done injustice to them by IMPERIALISM. We have obliterated indigenous modes and expressions of gender, while appropriating concepts such as “two-spirit”. We condone, tacitly or otherwise, the continuing colonization of a world we think belongs to us, believing that white people have the answers to the world’s problems. We find quaint “primitive” people’s conceptions of gender and sexuality and erase them by insisting that they fit into boxes that we create.

We have done injustice to them by JAILING. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, in many cases simply for being trans. CeCe McDonald is currently serving a 41-month sentence for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack. And, in a horrible perversion of justice, trans people who are incarcerated are almost never placed in gender-congruent prisons or allowed access to transition-related medical care. Then once they get out there is often nowhere for them to go.

We have done injustice to them by KILLING. Transgender Day of Remembrance is supposed to be about commemorating the trans people who have been killed this year. This year, we remember the names of 63 individuals. And these are just the ones we know of, the ones in the “official list”. And for some of these, we aren’t sure of their names. We do injustice by allowing trans people to live on the margins, but we do violence to their memories by allowing them to die on the margins.

We have done injustice to them by LAUGHTER. Trans women are a punchline. Tune into any mainstream comedian—even “liberal” heroes like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—and you’ll find jokes about us. You’ll hear glib references to people getting “sex changes” and disgusted reactions to trans bodies being played for laughs. When we laugh, we contribute to an atmosphere that tells trans people that their bodies are jokes and their lives are only valuable as humor.

We have done injustice to them by MEDICALIZATION. Accessing transition-related medical care is difficult and expensive, and can be tricky and discouraging to navigate. It’s rare to find insurance paying for any part of transition-related care: hormones, surgery, psychotherapy, medications. Cis people put so much store by how “far along” a trans person is presumed to be in their medical transition to the exclusion of asking the person in question about how they might like to conceive of their own life and their own medical history and future.

We have done injustice to them by NEGLECT. Trans people are at high risk for being thrown out of their families, for being fired by their employers, for being rejected from shelters or treatment programs, and for self-harm and suicide. And when we shake our heads and say “It’s such a shame”, and don’t work to pick up the fight so it doesn’t happen again, we treat those lives as cheap.

We have done injustice to them by OBJECTIFICATION. We point and stare. We call trans people “that” and “it”, and treat them like they’re not in the room. We reduce trans people to their presumed genitalia, or a letter on their birth certificate. And we tell them to be grateful, because at least it means they’re getting noticed.

We have done injustice to them by POLITICS. Those who are the most vulnerable get pushed the furthest out of sight. We drop protection for trans people from laws or policies in the hope of making things as palatable as possible to a society that doesn’t want to have to deal with us. We play respectability politics with vulnerable people’s lives, and we congratulate ourselves on it. We satisfy ourselves with making small steps at a political level, while ordinary people are still struggling and still dying.

We have done injustice to them by QUESTIONING. We refuse to believe other people’s lived experience or to treat it as real until it has been validated by other people we’re more likely to believe. We still require trans people to get letters of approval from psychologists before we allow them access to medical care, and we require trans women to get two letters. We insulate ourselves from other people’s lived experiences by questioning the reality of those very experiences.

We have done injustice to them by RACISM. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we are complicit in institutional racism. We don’t like to think about the ways in which what we do furthers oppression based on race, and the ways it affects trans people of color, who find themselves living—and dying—at this intersection. It’s not a coincidence that year after year, the names of the trans people we remember are, by and large, the names of trans women of color. And this will continue as long as we don’t take a long hard look at why that is.

We have done injustice to them by SLUT-SHAMING. Women’s sexuality is punished by shame, how much the more so with trans women. We blame victims of rape for their own victimhood, and we blame trans women for not “passing” or for “passing” “too well”. We reinforce negative attitudes towards sex work and blame trans women who have to engage in it for survival purposes.

We have done injustice to them by TRANSACTIONALISM. Monika Maldonado, a trans Latina activist and author, wrote that Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day when trans women of color have more value dead than they do alive. We cheapen their lives by only caring about their lives when they are dead. We see the value in their lives as a transaction: to be passed around in privileged communities for a day or two, and then forgotten about for another year.

We have done injustice to them by UNFAIRNESS. We apply double standards to cis people and to trans people in terms of how they present their gender. We apply double standards to trans men and to trans women. We apply double standards to white people and to black people. And we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it—and when we do realize, we rationalize and justify it.

We have done injustice to them by VIOLENCE. 8% of trans people have been physically attacked or assaulted in doctor’s offices, buses, government agencies, retail stores, and other public venues. People wonder why trans people, especially people of color, don’t report things to the police: it’s because they often are not believed and sometimes get harassed or even assaulted for their trouble. Domestic abuse, rape, assault, and murder—these are plagues that afflict the trans community.

We have done injustice to them by WITHHOLDING. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released the largest ever survey of transgender and gender-non-conforming people in February 2011, and summed up the results as follows. “Trans people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers, and other service providers.”

We have done injustice to them by XENOPHOBIA. 7% of trans people have been physically assaulted on the job, and 6% have been sexually assaulted at work. But the rate triples for undocumented noncitizen trans people, who are at more three times the risk. And they have no recourse: they can’t go to the police or bring lawsuits except at grave, unacceptable personal risk to themselves.

We have done injustice to them by YIELDING TO DESPAIR. We get locked up with inaction. We wring our hands and wonder what we can do, and wait for other people to make things better.

We have done injustice to them by treating liberation as a ZERO-SUM GAME. Only when we realize that no one is truly liberated until all people are liberated will real change start to happen and there will be cause for hope.

Some resources

Blurred Lines in Parashat Vayera | Queer Interfaith Community

I didn’t write anything for last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, but my friend and colleague Becky Silverstein shared some words of Torah with a community of his at Kehillath Israel in Brookline last weekend. Read and enjoy.

Posted by: Emily | 11 October 2013

Lech L’cha: Names and Covenant

Like so much material in Genesis, the covenant God makes with Abraham is recounted twice in this parashah. The second telling of the story is by the source designated P, and repeats two themes from the two previous parshiyot, joining them in the person of Abraham.

God introduces the covenant this way (Gen. 17:1–2):

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Go before Me and be perfect, and I will set my covenant between Me and you, and I will increase your offspring trememdously.”

God then subsequently changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s to Sarah, and institutes circumcision as the physical sign of the covenant.

What strikes me here is that the word used here when God tells Abram to “go”, hit’halech, is the same word we saw last week that the Torah uses to describe Noach (6:9) and Enoch (5:24). Furthermore, the Torah also describes Noach as tamim, “perfect”, which is exactly what God tells Abram to be. Remember that grammatically this verb is reflexive, meaning something like “go yourself”, and last week we saw that this denotes a special kind of behavior in one’s life, living in ways that are honoring of the earth and the people within it and of the sacred relationship between humanity and the divine. Even the name of this week’s parashah, Lech l’cha, reflects this: it is taken from the injunction God gives Abram: “Go [lech] for yourself [l'cha] from your land…” (12:1).

God then blesses Abram by changing his name to Abraham, inserting the letter heh—part of the four-letter Divine Name yud-heh-vav-heh—into his name, and He does the same with Sarai, changing her name to Sarah. This is an external sign of an internal change: Abraham and Sarah are now different people, marked not just internally by the covenant but externally by their names, as symbols of walking with God.

Much is made about how God changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names and then later will change Jacob’s name to Israel (32:29), but it’s interesting to note that here, God’s name also changes. Here, He identifies Himself as El Shaddai, midrashically understood to mean something like “God who is sufficient” (she- is understood to be short for asher, “who” or “that”, plus dai, “enough” or “sufficient”), but its actual meaning and origin have been obscured through history. It is a conceit of the P Genesis story that God does not identity Himself as “Yahweh” to anyone before Moses; here another name is used. As the covenant is spelled out and continues to evolve, God is undergoing a transformation of His own; this is reflected through the different names the character of Yahweh uses throughout the Torah, just as with the different names that the human characters bear.

And this goes back to what I said when discussing B’reishit: names are power, and creation of names is a powerful act. In Genesis 2, Adam gives names to the animals and names his wife, as the first act of power that he exerts over the other things in his world. God names things into existence in Genesis 1. The act of creation is divine, but when it is emulated by humanity through our speech acts, our acts of naming, we are “walking ourselves” with God.

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