By Rabbi Shira Wallach
One of the most beautiful Jewish ideas is our vision of community: an embracing, loving, expansive, caring family. Because we rejoice our simchas together, our shared joy is magnified. Because we mourn our losses together, our shared despair is a bit easier to bear. Because we all feel a sense of responsibility for one another, Jews who have never met are still bound together by our common history and experience.
It’s no different in the way this week’s parasha, Yitro, characterizes the incredibly climactic and coalescing moment of Revelation, when God bestowed upon us the deeply precious gift of Torah. When we left Egypt, we were downtrodden refugees escaping from Pharaoh’s soul-crushing oppression, but when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we became Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—united under a common law, protected by a sacred covenant with our God.
This moment was so transformative, so central to the Jewish narrative, that our tradition teaches us that it was not only those who were physically present for Revelation at Sinai, but “all the souls still destined to be created” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). It is because of this midrash that we cherish the ubiquitous belief that every single Jewish soul—by birth or by choice, from that generation all the way into the infinite future—shared the ecstatic fusion of heaven and earth on that day, when God’s voice echoed across the great expanse of the wilderness.
But if we look closely at the Torah, we make the heartbreaking discovery that this is only a half-truth. To adequately prepare the Israelites for Revelation, “Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people: be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:14-15). Commentaries suggest that part of achieving spiritual readiness is to attain a state of sexual purity. And so, in the heteronormative world of the Ancient Near East, we can only assume that Moses was addressing the men. In his mind, the men were Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, the inheritors of tradition, and the women were not only excluded from Moses’ assumed audience, but were a potential source of impurity that would render the men unfit to receive God’s laws.
Furthermore, God delivered the Ten Commandments in the masculine singular verb formation. How does our experience change, when only the men are told: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt” or “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” or “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20)? How can the women of our history, our present, and our future move from the periphery to the center of Jewish tradition and study?
Dirshuni, a collection of modern commentaries written by women rabbis and scholars, imagines a conversation between God and a young woman who is struggling with her invisibility in the Torah’s account of Revelation. “God says to her: How long I have waited for you to come to Me and challenge Me, so that I can clarify for you what has been hidden away for three thousand years! I told Moses: ‘Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready on the third day: for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people’ (Exodus 19:10-11).”
Tamar Beulah, the author of this midrash, points out that Moses made an erroneous assumption in response to God’s warning about purity. It was never God’s intention to name women as a source of impurity. It was never God’s intention that women should be separated—physically or intellectually—from the most important event in our history, or any subsequent conversation about Torah, halakha, practice, or prayer.
This Shabbat, when we hear the majestic and timeless words of the Ten Commandments, let us ponder their revelatory brilliance, and at the same time, let us challenge their assumptions. For it is only when we embrace the entire community that our fullest joy and greatest potential become possible.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share