We All Were At Sinai: The Transformative Power of Inclusive Torah

There are many people in the Jewish community, for example, those with disabilities or Jews of color, who feel as if they are guests in their own community. They don't feel that they are totally welcomed, although they would like to feel at home and have much to contribute.

Jewish tradition, though, addresses these issues differently, as we will see in the sources below.

A midrash often studied on Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, presents the idea that all Jews; past, present, and future, stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the revelation of Torah collectively, each in a way that they could understand it. This is the ultimate story of inclusion.

כִּי כֹה אָמַר יי, חִנָּם נִמְכַּרְתֶּם וְגוֹ' (ישעיה נב, ג). לְמַעַן הָקִים אוֹתְךָ וְגוֹ', שֶׁלֹּא אֶחְזֹר בַּדָּבָר שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבוֹתֵיכֶם. וְלֹא אֶתְכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם, אֶלָּא אַף הַדּוֹרוֹת הָעֲתִידִין לָבֹא, הָיוּ שָׁם בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה. אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי, לָמָּה כְּתִיב: כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה וְגוֹ' וְאֶת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה. לְפִי שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמוֹת הָיוּ שָׁם וַעֲדַיִן גּוּף לֹא נִבְרָא, לְכָךְ לֹא כְּתִיב בָּהֶן עֲמִידָה.

“For thus says the Lord, ‘You were sold for free, [and you shall be redeemed for no money].’” (Deut. 29:12:) “In order to establish you today as his people…,” so that I would not go back on the word that I swore to your ancestors. Deut. 29:13), “And not only with you [have I made this covenant and this oath].” But rather the generations that have yet to come were also there at that time, as stated (in vs. 14), “But with those who are [standing ('md)] here with us [today… and with those who are not here with us today].” R. Abahu said in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahmani, “Why does it say, ‘those who are [standing ('md)] here [...]; and those who are not here’ (without using the word, standing)? Because all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created. It is for that reason [their] existence (literally, standing, rt.: 'md) is not stated here.”

The notion that each person was created in the image of G-d—B’tzelem Elokim, with no human being greater or inferior to another, is stated early in the Torah. Everyone has inherent value as their full, authentic selves.

(כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹקִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹקִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
(27) And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

This point is made even more explicit during G-d's conversation with Moses at the burning bush. Moses objects to being chosen to confront Pharaoh in Egypt by pointing out that he is "slow of speech and slow of tongue". G-d's answer demonstrates His faith in people with disabilities as leaders and transmitters of Torah even when society sends contrary messages.

(י) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־יי בִּ֣י אדושם לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי׃ (יא) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יי אֵלָ֗יו מִ֣י שָׂ֣ם פֶּה֮ לָֽאָדָם֒ א֚וֹ מִֽי־יָשׂ֣וּם אִלֵּ֔ם א֣וֹ חֵרֵ֔שׁ א֥וֹ פִקֵּ֖חַ א֣וֹ עִוֵּ֑ר הֲלֹ֥א אָנֹכִ֖י יי׃ (יב) וְעַתָּ֖ה לֵ֑ךְ וְאָנֹכִי֙ אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה עִם־פִּ֔יךָ וְהוֹרֵיתִ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּֽר׃ (יג) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר בִּ֣י אדושם שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח׃ (יד) וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף יי בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃ (טו) וְדִבַּרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו וְשַׂמְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים בְּפִ֑יו וְאָנֹכִ֗י אֶֽהְיֶ֤ה עִם־פִּ֙יךָ֙ וְעִם־פִּ֔יהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֽׂוּן׃ (טז) וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹקִֽים׃

(10) But Moses said to the LORD, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (11) And the LORD said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? (12) Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (13) But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.” (14) The LORD became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. (15) You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do— (16) and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him,

Inclusion is not a top-down endeavor. Indeed, it is bottom-up. The two sources below are examples of how rabbis who were blind took halakhah, Jewish law, into their own hands, resulting in permanent change and greater enfranchisement.

אמר רב יוסף מריש ה"א מאן דהוה אמר לי הלכה כר"י דאמר סומא פטור מן המצות עבידנא יומא טבא לרבנן דהא לא מיפקידנא והא עבידנא השתא דשמעיתא להא דא"ר חנינא גדול מצווה ועושה יותר ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה אדרבה מאן דאמר לי דאין הלכה כרבי יהודה עבידנא יומא טבא לרבנן
Rav Yosef, who was blind, said: At first I would say: If someone would tell me that the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, who says: A blind person is exempt from fulfilling the mitzvot, I would make a festive day for the rabbis, as I am not commanded and yet I perform the mitzvot. This means my reward is very great. Now that I have heard that which Rabbi Ḥanina says: Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzva and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzva and performs it, on the contrary: If someone would tell me that the halakha is not in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, and a blind person is obligated in mitzvot, I would make a festive day for the rabbis.

אמר רב אחא בר יעקב סומא פטור מלומר הגדה כתיב הכא בעבור זה וכתיב התם בננו זה מה להלן פרט לסומא אף כאן פרט לסומין איני והאמר מרימר שאלתינהו לרבנן דבי רב יוסף מאן דאמר אגדתא בי רב יוסף אמרו רב יוסף מאן דאמר אגדתא בי רב ששת אמרו רב ששת קסברי רבנן מצה בזמן הזה דרבנן

Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: A blind person is exempt from reciting the Haggadah. The proof is that it is written here, with regard to the Paschal lamb: “And you shall tell your son on that day saying, it is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8), and it was written there, with regard to the stubborn and rebellious son, that his parents say: “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard” (Deuteronomy 21:20). The Gemara explains the verbal analogy of the word “this”: Just as there, in the case of the rebellious son, the Sages expound that the verse excludes a blind person, as a blind parent cannot say: This son of ours, for he cannot point to him; so too here, in the case of the recitation of the Passover Haggadah, the word “this” excludes blind people. The Gemara asks: Is that so? But didn’t Mareimar say: I asked the Sages from the school of Rav Yosef, who was blind: Who recited the Haggadah in the house of Rav Yosef? They said to him: Rav Yosef himself recited it. Mareimar subsequently asked: Who recited the Haggadah in the house of Rav Sheshet, who was also blind? They said to him: Rav Sheshet himself recited it. This indicates that a blind person is obligated to recite the Haggadah. The Gemara answers: These Sages, Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet, maintain that nowadays the halakhot of eating matza and the recitation of the Haggadah that accompanies it apply by rabbinic law. For this reason, blind people can recite the Haggadah for others.

Inclusion is not only about leadership and bringing folks inside our community. It is also about fundamentally shifting our preexisting biases. The story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah and a rabbi of such prominence that he is known only by the name "Rabbi", shows how the actions of one person can change perceptions for all time.

רבי ורבי חייא הוו שקלי ואזלי באורחא כי מטו לההוא מתא אמרי איכא צורבא מרבנן הכא נזיל וניקביל אפיה אמרי איכא צורבא מרבנן הכא ומאור עינים הוא אמר ליה ר' חייא לרבי תיב את לא תזלזל בנשיאותך איזיל אנא ואקביל אפיה תקפיה ואזל בהדיה כי הוו מיפטרי מיניה אמר להו אתם הקבלתם פנים הנראים ואינן רואין תזכו להקביל פנים הרואים ואינן נראין אמר ליה איכו השתא מנעתן מהאי בירכתא
§ The Gemara relates: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Ḥiyya were walking along the road. When they arrived at a certain city, they said: Is there a Torah scholar here whom we can go and greet? The people of the city said: There is a Torah scholar here but he is blind. Rabbi Ḥiyya said to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: You sit here; do not demean your dignified status as Nasi to visit someone beneath your stature. I will go and greet him. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi grabbed him and went with him anyway, and together they greeted the blind scholar. When they were leaving him, he said to them: You greeted one who is seen and does not see; may you be worthy to greet the One Who sees and is not seen. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to Rabbi Ḥiyya: Now, if I had listened to you and not gone to greet him, you would have prevented me from receiving this blessing.

The story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi greeting the blind scholar ends with him receiving a blessing. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says, Now, if I had listened to you and not gone to greet him, you would have prevented me from receiving this blessing." Just think of all of the blessings that we are missing when we exclude members of the community. The Jewish community gains when we encourage and appreciate the talents that each individual has to offer.

The complete ELI Talk on the subject of inclusion can be watched below.