Wrestling Till Dawn (Parashat Vayishlach)

The author compares her own personal story of wrestling with her gender identity to Jacob’s life stories and struggles.

December 4, 2009

By Joy Ladin

Torah Queeries logo

Parashat Vayishlach
Wrestling Till Dawn
by Joy Ladin on Friday December 04, 2009
17 Kislev 5770
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Tradition tells us that the Torah is not simply the story of our ancestors, that its narratives mirror and prefigure our own lives. For me, that’s certainly true of this parshah. As long as I can remember, I read it as telling the story of my life:

[Jacob] got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven son and crossed the ford of Yabbok…. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that the couldn’t overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated… Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn has broken.” And Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man said to him “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” He said, “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and man and have overcome”… The sun rose … and Jacob was limping on his hip. (Genesis 32: 23-32)

When I was a boy, I read the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger in heroic terms. As an avid Marvel comic book reader, I took the idea that identity was a battle as a given. Jacob doesn’t defeat his mysterious opponent; he just hangs on and keeps fighting, and to make sure that his descendants don’t miss the point, the Torah gives him a new name, Yisrael or Israel, which means, “one who struggles with God.” As children of Israel, ou r identity is defined by our struggle with God. And that struggle costs us: the final image in the story is not Jacob holding his own with a possibly angelic opponent, but limping off to humble himself before the brother he defrauded decades before.

But I didn’t read Jacob’s wrestling match as a parable of national spiritual identity; the image of identity as a wounding struggle with God struck closer to home. By age 10, I already had spent many nights wrestling in the darkness, pleading, sobbing, lashing out and hanging on in a desperate effort to become the girl I knew I was supposed to be. But my opponent – was it God, my body or the mind that refused to accept it? – never gave in. Instead of a new name and new identity, I woke every morning stranded in the same body, the same pain, the same shame.

Identifying with Jacob’s struggles didn’t make me like him. I cringed when I read the story of how he disguised himself as his older brother Esau in order to trick his blind, aged father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Since my own blessings – food, shelter, friends, the love of my family – depended on disguising myself as a son and brother I knew I wasn’t, I probably should have been more forgiving. Like Jacob, I lied to those I loved, betraying and exploiting their trust; but Jacob’s deception was soon over, while mine went on and on, day after day, year after year. Jacob seems to feel little remorse, but, when we were alone in the dark, God and I made sure that I suffered for my betrayals – my failure to be the boy my family wanted me to be, and my failure to be myself.

I knew why Jacob kept on wrestling through that night. He hung on because he couldn’t let go. He was fighting not only for but with his life, and he had to keep fighting, no matter how much it hurt him.

Unlike Jacob, I tried to let go – by age 10, I had made two suicide attempts. But I wasn’t any better at ending my life than I was at owning up to my transsexual identity. As the years of night wore on, lying about who I was became automatic; the lies seemed to grow of their own accord into a man’s body, a man’s face, a man’s career, a man’s roles. No one seemed to notice that the husband, father, teacher I seemed to be wasn’t a real person. My true self – the girl, then woman, I felt I was, or should have been – didn’t get to talk, laugh, make choices, embarrass herself, triumph, create and discover herself through the tiny and momentous decisions that make up a life. And the older the man I was pretending to be got, the more substantial the life based on his gender grew, the less substantial my true self seemed, the less likely to ever stand like Jacob in the light of day, wounded but upright, called, finally, by her true name.

I was sure my night would never end, because I was sure I could never do what Jacob had done: stand apart from all I loved, all I had accomplished, everything that had till then defined me, and fight it out, once and for all, until I reached the dawn.

Maybe no one willingly faces the kind of identity-deforming and reforming crisis that is represented by Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match. Jacob and I avoided it until we had no choice, when we realized that we could no longer live as we were, and couldn’t become who we needed to be until we faced the consequences of who we had been. Jacob avoided Esau’s rage for decades by living in exile. He spent decades tending his uncle Laban’s sheep, until, fed up with living as a hired hand when he was a patriarch with substantial family flocks of his own, Jacob headed home. And when he set off to remake his life, the consequences of his betrayal – in the form of his brother Esau at the head of an army that could easily slaughter Jacob’s family – set off to meet him. The night Jacob wrestles with the nameless stranger is the night before he is due to meet his brother.

Like Jacob, I thought my years of living in the exile of manhood had put my past betrayal behind me. Not that I ever stopped suffering from the contradiction between the man I presented to the world and the woman I felt myself to be. But I had given up any hope or even fantasy of ever becoming myself; I expected to grow old and die as the male persona I’d created, without ever glimpsing myself in the mirror, without ever feeling whole, or honest, or fully alive. And, like Jacob, I only faced the consequences of my betrayal when my exile became intolerable. My brain rejected the body that housed it; my soul revolted at the lies that smothered it; I couldn’t sleep or eat or think about anything but ending my life. My male persona was literally killing me; it was time to die, or become myself.

But facing the consequences of my decades of betrayal of myself was even more terrifying than facing the choice between death or life as a person I’d never been. Like Jacob, my teshuvah – my return to my true self – put my entire family at risk. I couldn’t begin to live as the woman I felt myself to be without wrecking the life I had built around a male identity – and the lives of my wife and three children. I knew that my marriage and family wouldn’t survive the physical, emotional and social strains of my transition from living as a man to living as a woman, that my wife and children would pay a terrible price as a consequence of my becoming. And they have.

But that’s another story. In this story, family, home, all that I once knew as my life, is far away, across the river, and I’m alone in the dark again. But I’m not a child any more. This time, when life’s dark angel comes to wrestle, there will be no lying, no hiding, no letting go, until I receive a new name, a new identity, and stand in the light of the dawn that arrives after decades of night – the dawn of being truly alive.