From solo to harmony at Sinai

What happened at Sinai is supposed to be both a personal and communal memory.

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
as time passes
the particulars the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling

But feelings are just sounds
and vowel barkings of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
we could create holy time
sparks flying.

-Merle Feld, “We All Stood Together”


In Exodus 10, God speaks to Moses and tells him to “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. 

As happened so often, for reasons that keep bringing us back to turn the text over and over again,  Moses “warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. Then, in a moment of personal editing, instead of simply repeating God’s words, he says, "Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman."

For many, like author and scholar Judith Plaskow, and through her book, Standing Again at Sinai, to me, this pasuk (sentence) became the point on which a whole world view changed. Who was Moses talking to? Just the men? Why was the whole community divided up at that point?  Where were the voices of the women, and where has that voice been since?

What happened at Sinai is supposed to be both a personal and communal memory, powerful enough to be impacting us still thousands of years later. Some people even greet each other in the days leading up to Shavuot with the phrase, “See you at Sinai;” just as we are each told to consider as if we personally were brought out of Egypt, tradition also tells us we were all at Sinai—past, present, and future Jews. Something incredible happened there, something worth relating over and over. But whose set of “minutes” do we follow?  Whose voices were heard from that moment on? And whose weren’t heard at all?  Whose hands were free and able to record the event?

Our personal and communal identity is formed by the stories we tell over and over. I know that when I share some personal childhood memory, my sisters often either add to it, or contradict it completely. Sometimes I wonder if we grew up together in the same house at all!  Yet sharing those different pieces of perspective make for a fuller, more colorful memory quilt. It’s the same with communal identities. What gets lost when we only see one set of colors in a memory?  What do we do with the “old” stories?  Rather than keep them around as museum pieces, we must work to incorporate them, weave them into new stories, grounded in tradition but able to accommodate new textures and hues.

The communal memory of the Jewish people is made so much richer when more voices are part of the story. We are only beginning to hear the voices of women in our tradition, and there are so many more to listen for. In America, for example, so much of what’s considered “Jewish” cooking, stories, accents, and more are Ashkenazi-centric, because about a hundred years ago, a couple of million immigrants came from one particular corner of the Jewish world. We are just beginning to taste the complex flavors that season the stories of Jews from other parts of the world, and our entire Jewish community is richer for it.

I hope when we meet at Sinai this year, we can strengthen our community by listening beyond our own stories, and work to sing in harmony with so many more.  

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