Tradition teaches that all Jews were present for God’s revelation of Torah described in Parashat Yitro. Is this true? I wonder about the unnamed experience of the women who stood at Sinai.
When men and women enter Sinai, God gives directions to Moshe with a curious statement, “This is what you’ll say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel…” Medieval commentator, Rashi, tells us that Beit Yaakov refers to the women while B’nai Yisrael refers to the men. God instructs Moshe to say to the women in a gentle voice, but to declare to the men with the penalties and details as hard to digest as bitter wormwood. Perhaps women do not need as much convincing as men, but still, what can be understood about this difference in instruction?
The women are not afraid or angry at the separation into two camps. Like the men, they are becoming pure in body and intention for a glorious event. God’s intentions are going to be revealed.
All the people in the camp trembled. The women are trembling with pleasure because for them, the revelation is an easy experience. The thunder and lightning are like children’s voices and candles’ glow, the cloud is like a blanket and the horn blast is a love song. In Beit Yaakov, Moshe’s instruction is gentle.
Moshe announces the first of God’s commandments: I am Adonai your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. The women know the importance of the Exodus. They had packed up homes, brought dough for matza, and carried newborns and toddlers, the precious children God released from the house of bondage.
The women understand the importance of no sculptured images. They will not swear falsely. They hear the command to remember Shabbat and their hearts swell with pride for they know that for generations to come they will create Jewish homes to welcome Shabbat with candles and challah.
The women feel joy as Moshe says: “Honor your mother and father.” Both parents will be honored in Jewish families; mothers, grandmothers, and tantes alongside fathers and zaydes.
You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. This is a wise God. It is their privilege to accept the obligation of all that God is telling them, man and woman alike.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. The women nod their heads, knowing that women need one another for companionship, for cooking help, for childcare. Supporting each other is the woman’s way.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. The women smile. “We will try. We promise. This too we accept.”
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife… “We prom – What? What? What did Moshe just say that God said? What? We thought that God was talking to all of us, men and women too.” The hearts of the women empty of joy and mouths fill with the bile of hard realization. Moshe was never talking to them. As the reality that this revelation is directed to men becomes clear, the women fell back and stood at a distance. Rashi teaches that they fell backwards and ministering angels came and helped to bring them back, as it is written in the Talmud: The angels encouraged them to move bit by bit.
What do the angels say in encouragement? They whisper to the women not to worry. The wording of the final commandment was a problem in transmission on Moshe’s part. Caught up in the moment, Moshe misspoke. The idea that the commandments are intended for men will indeed affect the system that will be transmitted through the rabbis; but the angels insist to the women, “Don’t worry. Far off in the future, men and women will strive to make it right. They will explain that God’s relationship and God’s revelation is for men and women equally.” It’s one more task of Tikkun Olam for the Jewish people to accomplish. Don’t worry, it will take many generations, but it will come to pass.