By Beth Huppin. Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity, the Jewish education program at JFS. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
In the Biblical record of preparing for the moment of communal Revelation of Torah, instructions to the people (Exodus 19:15) include “do not go near a woman” for three days. When I first saw this verse I wondered, “Does this mean only men received Revelation? Where were the women and children?” These questions were compounded by the fact that, until recently, men almost exclusively wrote and taught Biblical interpretations. I found the Biblical text and many of the interpretations profoundly meaningful, but often wondered what might be missing.
Merle Feld, a contemporary poet, responded to these questions in the framing of a 1989 poem:
We all stood together
By Merle Feld
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’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
As time passes
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
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
I first read this poem over thirty years ago. Then, I read it as a feminist response to Revelation at Sinai. Now, I read the poem more expansively, as a call for integrating unheard voices into recognized, respected and recorded narratives of all profound communal experiences. This poem reminds us that without the presence of all voices, it is impossible to fully understand and learn from potentially transformative communal moments.
Today the world is in a potentially transformative communal moment with COVID-19. As I read and listen to the many who write and speak about their experiences in this global pandemic, I become aware that not all voices are fully present. Which voices are missing? And why? Who, as Merle Feld says, is left with just feelings, but no voice?
The Piazetzner Rebbe, z”l who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and was murdered by the Nazis, had a different but related understanding of the experience of Revelation. He taught that while the entire People of Israel received a communal Instruction, individuals had and continue to have the capacity to hear their own uniquely personal Teaching. “The Torah that God teaches someone individually and personally cannot be grasped by anyone else, while another person, in their turn, may comprehend what the first cannot.” (Torah from the Years of Fury, translated by J Hershy Worch, page 119)
In other words, he taught that communal Revelation was and remains available in a unique way for every individual. Revelation is incomplete without recognition of these unique individual experiences. Might acknowledging all individual experiences also be a crucial ingredient for learning truly meaningful lessons from this communal experience of COVID-19?
At JFS we often see people whose voices are rarely heard by anyone else. This is an honor, privilege and responsibility we take seriously every day. And yet, the fullness of healing for them and for our entire society will happen only when everyone’s voices are heard, honored and respected beyond private spaces.
In a world where it is easy to stay in our own “media bubbles”, we need to ask ourselves: Whose voices are dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant? Who is not represented in the communal policy conversations? Where can I go to hear those voices, and how might I help amplify them more broadly in order to address increasingly obvious systemic inequalities?
At JFS, we provide compassionate witnesses to unheard stories. We know that a major aspect of individual healing comes not from being told how to heal but from being heard. All who have been truly heard by another human being know the depth of healing that can come from such sacred exchanges. That healing work of speaking and listening is an ongoing process for individuals as well as for society.
Our Rabbis taught that Revelation itself is ongoing, too. We don’t hear the unfolding revelation every day because we don’t know how to listen. As Shavuot approaches, I wonder: Can this holiday be an inspiration for us to move forward with an appreciation for all the individual voices and unique Truths emerging from this communal COVID-19 experience? Perhaps newly acknowledged, honestly shared and communally recognized individual Truths will inspire us to walk together into a healthier and more equitable future.
Shavuot, the holiday of receiving Torah at Sinai, begins Thursday evening, May 28. This piece is based on some of the ideas shared at a joint pre-Shavuot teaching with Rabbi Samuel Klein from the Jewish Federation and Beth Huppin from JFS as part of the Finding Our Voices webinar series. Stay tuned for more webinars soon!