Yitro: Who Stood at Sinai?

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain
smoking. (Shemot, 20:15)

Was it only men, bearded and pious,
who received the Torah?
Were women not present
at the revelation?
(Was the covenant, after all,
not with the House of Jacob?)
Was the crowd homogenous:
Caucasian; no strangers; no converts?
Were all normal and healthy,
neurotypical and sound of mind?
Was everyone cis-gendered
and heterosexual?
Were there no boat-rockers,
mavericks, free thinkers?
All the people, we are told,
met the Divine at Sinai.
Could it be we stood together
with the very diversity
that makes us whole?


The Torah tells us in this verse that all the people were present at the revelation at Sinai. Later, when Moses recalls the revelation and repeats the Decalogue, the Torah again speaks of the entire people being present, “Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them, “Hear O Israel…” (Devarim 5:1).

In an earlier verse, describing the journey through the wilderness, the Torah says, “Vayis’u meR’phidim vayavo’u midbar Sinai vayachanu bamidbar vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar – Having journeyed from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness and Israel encamped there in front of the mountain (Shemot 19:2).” Rashi notes that all the verbs used in this verse are in the plural form “they journeyed…they came…they encamped” – except the last one “vayichan” which is singularIsrael as one entity encamped. Rashi comments that here they were “as one person with one heart” compared with other encampments where there had been dissension among them. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vurka* finds an etymological connection between “vayichun” and the word “chen – grace or favour.” He says,  “Each of the people found favour in the eyes of his fellow. That is how they merited to receive the Torah. Even though each person’s way seemed right in his own eyes, according to the root of his soul, yet somehow his fellow’s way found favour in his eyes – so they were like one person with one heart.”

*Rabbi Israel Yitzhak Kalish of Vurka (1779–1848) was the first rebbe of Vurka in central Poland. In 1829 he moved to Przysucha where he became a disciple of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, among whose other notable followers were Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Kotsker Rebbe), Rabbi Yitzchak Myer Alter of Ger (Chidushei Harim), Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz (Mei HaShiloach), Rabbi Yaakov Arye of Radzymin and Rav Chanoch Heynekh of Alexander. Eventually Rabbi Yitzhak settled in Vurka where the dynasty was founded.

Whereas the Kotsker Rebbe’s outlook was a pessimistic one reflecting a belief that the fate of the world is a dark one and almost superhuman powers are required to overcome obstacles, the Vurker Rebbe’s outlook was just the opposite. He believed that the original source of the world is a great love, and evil is a mere lapse in a peaceful world harmony. His love for all people was proverbial and the Kotsker said of him that even in heaven, the Vurker would find a place for everybody. (from Poyln: My Life Within Jewish Life in Poland : Sketches and Images vol 1 (2007) by Yeḥiel Yeshaia Trunk – a descendant of the Vurker Rebbe).

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