Whose stories are we not hearing?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Shabbat sermon on parashat Yitro. Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

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

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
the vowel barking 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 recreate holy time
sparks flying.

This poem by Merle Feld gives us a personal perspective of one of the most important collective experiences of the Jewish people: Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because this moment, captured in this week’s Torah portion, was such an important part of the Jewish story, rabbis have spent centuries arguing about exactly who was there, who heard what, and who said what in response.

For instance, some rabbis argued that this historic gathering was not limited by the bounds of the space-time continuum. Therefore, it included the future prophets of Israel, the souls of those yet unborn, and the souls of future converts to Judaism (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). One rabbi imagined that the bellies of pregnant women became like glass, so that the fetuses in their wombs could affirm their commitment to the covenant (Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibrot).

But oddly enough, some rabbis argue over whether or not women were included, and whether they received all commandments, or just the most basic ones. One progressive amongst these rabbis concluded that the women must have been addressed first because they were “prompt in fulfilling the commandments” and would “lead their children to the study of Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2).

Modern feminist scholars point out that Moses’ instructions to the people seem to imply that women were not to be included at all. This exclusion, they argue, did not come from God, but rather from Moses’ own biases. While God instructs Moses to make sure the people “stay pure,” Moses tells the people—or at least, the men—“Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19: 10-15). In doing so, Moses has implied that “people” means “men,” and that “pure” and “woman” cannot exist in the same space.

Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that “At this defining moment of revelation, Moses has introduced into Israel both gender exclusion and the separation between sexuality and spirituality. Two major concepts—and they are not divine” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, pp. 70-72). Judith Plaskow puts it more simply, “At this central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible” (Contemporary Jewish Theology, pp. 255). Given that, last week, the Torah amplified the voices of women–singing, dancing, and drumming on the shores of the sea– their silence here is almost audible.

And while these contemporary voices point out the exclusion of women from the Sinai narrative, these aren’t the only voices that we aren’t hearing. The Torah would have us believe that close to a million people were standing at Sinai. Surely they did not all have the same experience! But we only really hear about Moses, and God, and the Israelites as a collective entity. The experience of the individual is lost.

For instance, my friend Matan Koch once gave a brilliant sermon about the phrase “standing at Sinai.” Matan uses a power chair, and while he can make it go up and down when asked to “rise for the Barchu,” he cannot physically stand. He asked us to consider what his fate might have been at Sinai. Would God have miraculously enabled him to stand for the giving of the Torah? Would his fellow Israelites have propped him up to a standing position? Or would God have accepted him as he was, a person who cannot stand and therefore enters the covenant in a seated position?

All of this got me thinking about whose stories we might not be hearing, at Sinai, and now.

In a recent interview, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discussed her now-famous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This quote is beloved by activists and feminists everywhere. Some of us even have it printed on tote bags. But Ulrich had not meant for her words to serve as encouragement for revolutionary behavior. She had had actually been talking about the difficulty of her own research into the lives of ordinary women in the 19th century. All she had to work with were the journals of a handful of “well-behaved” women, because the patterns of their everyday lives were not considered newsworthy. Nor did the men around them take note of their behavior, unless it was erratic.

I have long been obsessed with stories, both real and imaginary, about people ordinary and extraordinary. In addition to my love of biblical stories and midrash on their characters, I enjoy storytelling podcasts and memoirs. Personal stories give me perspectives that differ from my own: such as what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia and then go to Yale, or how it would feel to travel to Korea to impress one’s future husband’s grandparents.

One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate are the stories I hear when guiding people through the life-cycle. B’nai mitzvah parents tell me what their children were like as babies, trying to escape from their cribs, or tasting solid food for the first time. Wedding couples tell me why they love each other and how they knew it, or how many times their partner asked them out before they said yes. Families preparing for a funeral have the impossible task of telling me their loved one’s entire life story in about an hour, but they do it with tenderness and humor. These are the stories of ordinary people, everyday stories that rarely get told outside the inner circle of a family. There are many commonalities, but each one is different, and learning each other’s stories is vital to building meaningful relationships and sacred communities.

In the world we currently inhabit, our struggle to build these relationships is twofold. First of all, we might be too plugged in, too busy, or too uncomfortable to sit down with people in our circle to ask questions about their lives.

Our second challenge is that, even if we were to uncover the life stories of everyone we knew, we might still not hear the stories of those beyond our circle. We are a nation made up of diverse opinions and life experiences. This can cause a lot of tension between those who hold different viewpoints. What would it be like if everyone in our nation took the time to hear the stories of individual immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, people in business, people in law enforcement, those who live in East Coast cities and those who live in the rural Midwest, people of color and people of privilege, people from different religions, and, most of all, people from opposing political parties?

So while I try not to make a habit of telling you what to do, I’d like to suggest three action items to consider over this long weekend:

First of all, we can ask a loved one to tell us their story. The StoryCorps website and app have great lists of questions to ask.

Second, we can find someone in the synagogue that we don’t know very well, and make time to meet with them and learn their story. We’ve been talking a lot about how we might navigate these tumultuous times as a community. Sometimes we will be called upon to act together, sometimes to support one another. But what if the synagogue was a place where we could experience the stories of those who are not like us? Because even if we are all part of the Jewish community, we are not all the same.

Finally, we can seek out opportunities to hear the stories of those whose experiences and opinions might be different from our own. You might find them online through StoryCorps or The Moth, but also in our community. For instance, we are working with our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors to create joint programming where we can get to know each other better.

We also have an opportunity to hear stories on Saturday, March 25th, when the TMI Project will be hosting an evening called “Black Stories Matter” in Kingston. This is an opportunity to hear about experiences different—or perhaps not so different—from our own in an apolitical setting: just real snapshots of pivotal moments in other people’s ordinary lives.

There are those who believe that the Torah was given in 70 languages, so that everyone in the world could understand (Shabbbat 88a). One rabbi suggests that, just as manna tasted different to every Israelite, so the commandments sounded different to each individual: “Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with their particular strength [koach]—to the elderly in keeping with their strength, to young men in keeping with their strength, to the little ones in keeping with their strength, and to the women in keeping with their strength” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

The better we know each other’s strengths and stories, the better we can speak to one another in the right language. Because even though the Israelites might each have heard or experienced something different at that Sinai moment, they all stood at the same mountain, they all had to adhere to the same covenant, and they all had to walk through the same wilderness, together. The same is true of us: our experiences may be different, but it is still incumbent upon us to move forward together. Then we might, as Merle Feld suggests, “recreate holy time, sparks flying.”






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