Parashat Yitro 5780
Beth Tikvah Congregation
Rabbi Adam Rubin, Ph.D.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, and it’s important to note that we have a group right here at BT called the Kavod Committee (Kavod means honour or respect) which is devoted to making our shul as inclusive and diverse as possible. The Kavod Committee was created in 2019 in order to find ways to make Beth Tikvah a more inclusive and diversity-aware community. Under the leadership of Erez Harel, the committee seeks to to ensure that ANYONE who wants to be a part of Beth Tikvah’s community and participate in shul activities is able to, regardless of personal physical, financial, or accessibility limitations.
It is in this spirit that I offer the following thoughts about our parashah.
We’re at long last ready to leave. After all the of the generations between Adam and Eve, and the matriarchs and patriarchs; and 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the narrative in our Torah now culminates in the Israelites’ triumphant redemption. In a certain sense, it’s all been pointing in one direction, to the singular moment described in Parashat Yitro: the Revelation at Sinai, to the drama and power of our people’s encounter with God at the mountain.
Biblical commentators have many different understandings of that moment, but they all agree that a remarkable aspect of the Sinai moment is that it is a communal revelation. Every previous instance of revelation in the Torah consists of God speaking privately to an individual or two — Noah, Avraham, Ya’akov, Moshe, and so on. Private revelation is the most common in other religions as well: an individual experiences God and then shares that revelation more broadly.
But at Sinai, the entire people of Israel are part of the experience of Revelation. It doesn’t matter if a person is young or old, male or female, abled or disabled. Sinai is for everyone. In Exodus 19, Moshe assembles the Israelite elders and shares that God wants to create a covenant with the Israelites. They agree, saying “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 19:8). Moshe, acting as the intermediary, shares these words with God, and then God confirms a meeting with the entire people: “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you” (Exodus 19:9). Three days later, “Moshe led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). And then after the revelation of the Ten Commandments and numerous laws in Mishpatim, the Torah says: “and all the people answered with one voice, and said: ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken will we do.’” 24:3
וַיַּ֨עַן כָּל־הָעָ֜ם ק֤וֹל אֶחָד֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶֽׂה
The Hebrew word “ha-am” (meaning “the people” or “the nation”) is repeated again and again. You know the phrase am Yisrael, “the people of Israel,” which is still used in modern Hebrew to mean the Jewish people worldwide in every generation. Ha-am not only refers to the people as a communal entity, but also to all the people, every single individual person.
This Exodus language of inclusivity is remarkably powerful, and our sages of blessed memory took note of its power. As in all human experiences, no one experienced Sinai in exactly the same way, but everybody was present and participated in the best way they could, as an ancient midrash explains:
אִלּוּ הָיָה כָּתוּב קוֹל ה’ בְּכֹחוֹ, לֹא הָיָה הָעוֹלָם יָכוֹל לַעֲמֹד, אֶלָּא (תהלים כט, ד):
קוֹל ה’ בַּכֹּחַ, בַּכֹּחַ שֶׁל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד, הַבַּחוּרִים לְפִי כֹּחָן וְהַזְּקֵנִים לְפִי כֹּחָן וְהַקְּטַנִּים לְפִי כֹּחָן
“If the text in Psalms had said ‘the voice of Ha-Shem in His power, the world could not endure it, but instead the text says the kol Ha-Shem ba-koakh, voice of Ha-Shem in power, meaning each Israelite’s individual strength, young and old, each according to their strength.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 28:7)
The inclusion of each and every Israelite both in the Exodus from Egypt and at Sinai are powerful models for us today. It wasn’t enough to just bring along each person on the journey; each person had to be present at Sinai, experiencing God’s Presence in thunder, smoke, and rumbling — with whatever senses he or she could.
Too often today, we think it’s enough to just get everybody in the room together. If we can make our Jewish communities accessible, everyone can come in the door. But that’s not what Parashat Yitro teaches. The Torah doesn’t detail exactly how different people experienced the majesty of Revelation, but we do know that, in their own way, “all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). In our day, we need to focus not only on what happens in helping people in the door, but also on ensuring that each person can participate in as many aspects of Jewish life as possible. We need to ask ourselves what are the ways that we can make our Jewish lives inclusive in a way that acknowledges that people experience things in different ways and welcomes them because of that, not despite it.
It’s also important to note that this radical inclusion at Sinai doesn’t just happen spontaneously. As our parashah details, Moshe prepares the Israelites for it, by speaking to Moshe about God’s intention of sharing Revelation with the whole people, and Moshe then shares God’s words with the Israelites and the conversation continues back and forth, culminating in God’s instructions for the Israelites. God gives the Israelites a series of specific instructions for how to prepare for the Revelation in chapter 19 of Exodus:
The LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes.
Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.
You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it.
The entire people doesn’t just magically appear, ready to absorb God’s Presence. They, like all of us, need time, information, and preparation. No matter their places in Israelite society, each person needs to know, at least broadly, what to expect and what to do. Inclusion needs to go beyond a welcome by continuing through the experience itself.
Perhaps this focus on radical inclusion can help explain God’s decision to give the Torah so publicly. A beautiful midrash says:
Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel? … One might have said: “In my territory the Torah was given.” And another might have said: “In my territory the Torah was given.” Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one.” (M’chilta Bahodesh 20:2)
מפני מה לא ניתנה תורה בארץ ישראל שלא להטיל מחלוקת בין השבטים, שלא יהא זה אומר בארצי נתנה וזה אומר בארצי נתנה, לפיכך נתנה במדבר, דימוס פרהסיא במקום הפקר
This is an important reminder for each of us, from those of us who struggle to fit in or find our places in Jewish communities to those of us who lead those communities. No one person owns Judaism or Jewish tradition. It belongs to all of us, no matter our age, sex, race, or ability. This is one of the crucial legacies of matan Toratenu, God’s Revelation of our Torah – the centrality of inclusivity in Jewish tradition and practice.