As summer begins and a period of calmer, warmer days sets in, our tradition calls us back to the wilderness.
This week, Jewish communities all over the world will prepare to retell the story of the giving and receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai recounted in Exodus 19 and 20. At the base of that mountain, covered by a cloud, with thunder booming and lightning crashing, we bound ourselves in an eternal covenant with God.
Shavuot commemorates this defining moment for our people. We remember what it means to be one community, devoted to a singular purpose. At Sinai, we reached spiritual heights so overwhelming that the people could barely withstand it.
What are we to make of the fact that this revelation explicitly includes everyone? Up until this point, the promises God made were mostly with individuals. However, in Parshat Yitro, the traditional Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot, the Torah tells us that in this new covenant, ha-am, the collective, all of the people, receive it together. Men and women, children of all ages, rich and poor, sick and healthy – all are included and present to hear and accept Torah. Artificial boundaries and traditional categories are erased. Torah belongs to all of us, and to each of us it means something different and unique.
This concept of an expansive, inclusive Torah is not a 21st century innovation. In Shemot Rabbah,therabbis of Jewish tradition centuries ago recognized the innate strength of inclusion, too. It is written that during the Revelation at Sinai, “Each Israelite heard what they were able to hear.” We heard it all together, but each individual caught something different. This definition of a Torah of inclusion is not monolithic. It reminds us that our living Torah also includes diversity. Different perspectives, values and insights all fit together to create one entirely beautiful body of revealed and hidden Torah.
The physical location of Sinai serves as a reminder of inclusion and openness as well. The Mekhilta also comments on this aspect of Torah:
“ ‘… and they encamped in the desert’: The Torah was given openly, in a public place. For if it were given in Eretz Yisrael, they could say to the nations of the world: You have no portion in it. But it was given openly, in a public place, and all who want to take it may come and take it. (Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2:7).”
The lessons and wisdom of the Torah are open to all people, even those who may not identify as Jewish. All of those who live in our communities, who are a part of Jewish families, who work in the Jewish world or who engage in interfaith dialogue, these individuals have the ability to add to the multivoice, diverse effort to understand Torah.
This Shavuot, with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, calls us to be particularly mindful of the need to lift up Torah that is accessible and inclusive of all.
With the need to stay at home and physically isolate ourselves, I have been touched and impressed by the ability of our community to still make Torah and Jewish tradition more inclusive. For some, services have moved online and maintained a sense of connection for many, allowing people whose schedules or physical limitations prevented them from coming to temple previously. Study and learning have been happening in new virtual spaces.
This crisis revealed to us issues of technology and accessibility in our community, and we have taken it upon ourselves to address it. Our creativity flows, and we have experimented with new ways to reach our am, our diverse collective of people.
As a rabbi, I have had the pleasure of meeting new members of my congregation. We have seen the numbers attending our online services spike and have received kind, thoughtful notes from so many individuals expressing their gratitude.
Many silver linings have emerged from this experience, one of which is a greater awareness of inclusion and the work we still have left to do to meet the needs of all of those who thirst for Torah.
This year, our celebrations of Shavuot are going to be different from any we may have experienced in our lifetime. Perhaps this will lead to a new, even more meaningful way of accessing revelation. We can hear whatever is in our power to hear, bringing our own perspectives to communal conversations.
When the crisis passes, we can maintain inclusion and accessibility as core values in new ways, remembering who is present in our community and who might still be on the margins. I hope that we can retain the best of what we have learned and open up Torah for all to see and hear in new ways. Only then will the vision of our covenant be closer to completion.
Rabbi Lori Levine is rabbi educator at Congregation Shaare Emeth and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.