The ultimate experience of inclusion: Who’s in?
In the inspiring documentary, “20 Pearls,” 20 black women in 1909 at Howard University in Washington, DC, set up Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, later AKA Inc. They invested over a decade lobbying for change, including desegregating the military, and spent their summers volunteering to treat people in the Deep South with health needs. The head of the group, Norma Quander, wrote repeatedly to Alice Paul, the white woman who led the women’s suffrage march in 1913 and resisted the inclusion of black women. In her letters, Quander insisted that “representation matters.” The AKA drew strength from the separate space created in their sisterhood, but also recognized that togetherness has important power.
The experience of standing at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah (Ma’amad Har Sinai) is arguably the most formative moment in our nation’s collective consciousness. In Exodus 19:3, we are told: וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִקים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה’ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“And Moses went up to God. ה’ called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and declare to the Children of Israel.’”
Rashi famously explains that the House of Jacob refers to the women and the Children of Israel refers to the men. Furthermore, we learn in Midrash Tanchuma (Nitzavim 3:1) that the souls of all future members of the Jewish people were also present in some way. This experienced is relived through the Hakhel, the seven-yearly Torah reading (Deut. (31:12), Chagiga 3), which forms the last commandment in the entire Torah.
There is a custom to stand during the aliyah in which the Ten Commandments are read, just as there is a custom to stand for part of last week’s parsha, Beshalach, during the aliyah in which the Song of the Sea is read. Standing together to recreate the standing at Mount Sinai is such an important reminder of the power of the entire klal and inclusion is a critical feature of that experience. The parsha repeats the phrase “kol ha’am,” (the entire nation) in 19:8 and 11:
וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כׇל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה
The entire nation answered as one, saying, “All that ‘ה has spoken we will do!”
בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁ֗י יֵרֵ֧ד ה’ לְעֵינֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם עַל־הַ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
on the third day ‘ה will come down, in the sight of the entire nation, on Mount Sinai.
For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance of all the nation being present was primarily epistemological: it created certainty and removed doubt. According to Maimonides, it also enabled us to transmit the experience to future generations. However, there was also a significance that was not about religious knowledge but about politics.
This section is critical in the development of the people of Israel and their transition into a permanent covenantal relationship with God. God tells the people prior to Ma’amad Har Sinai, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). For this to happen, all needed to be present – to stand up and to be counted. Indeed, that is what characterizes the third and final covenant. After the universal and then the familial covenants with Noah and Abraham respectively, the receiving of the Torah played a central role in the very emergence of the Jewish people as a nation. At Sinai, the Children of Israel, all the people, ceased to be a group of individuals. Moses refers to that day as “Yom hakahal,” the day of the assembly (Deut. 9:10, 10:4, 18:16). It was the day when the Jewish people grew into an assembly.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: “Only in Judaism was God’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders), but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not yet righteous alike. At Sinai the Jewish people, until then a mere aggregate of individuals, linked by family, memory, and the experience of exodus, became a body politic with the Torah as its written constitution” (Covenant & Conversation).
This idea is echoed and developed in Parshat Kedoshim using the word eidah (congregation) “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel (אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל) and tell them: You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1-2). Nehama Leibowitz maintains that all of the Children of Israel needed to hear the command to be holy at the same time. Like the Ten Commandments, this commandment is so central to Judaism that the entire nation needed to hear it together. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argues that the eidah and the command to be kadosh (holy) are interconnected. Perhaps the Torah is stressing that one can only become kadosh if s/he is a part of the eidah, the greater congregation of the nation of Yisrael. And holiness may only be achieved as a “congregation” when the entire nation works together.
In this generation, arguably the two most pressing challenges facing Orthodoxy center around the extent of inclusion of women and LGBTQ Jews. For many cultural as well as halachic reasons the prayer space in which the Torah is read is often not representative of the nation, the eidah, the congregation. And while different members of the congregation may prioritize their own inclusion, do we think to look to others who may be excluded in different ways, whether it is for disability, sexuality or gender? Are we always mindful of those we may be excluding? The experience of Sinai calls upon us to remember that “representation matters.” Let us remember Sinai and use it as an antidote and a model for our communities today.