The festival of Shavuot (Weeks, so called because it comes 7 weeks after Pesach) could reasonably be called the “forgotten” festival. Although it is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach and Sukkot), it has neither the emotive ceremony of the Pesach seder nor the physical symbol of the sukkah. However, it celebrates a seminal event in the history of the Jewish people, the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Most significantly, this event represents not only the singular event of God’s appearance to the people at that time, but reminds us that Torah is our Eitz Chaim, Tree of Life, that remains relevant throughout history because we continue to study and wrestle with its words.
When Moses is leading the people to receive God’s presence at Sinai, we read that he leads kol ha’am, all the people, to the mountain. If the text had simply said ha’am, the people, it would have meant the same thing. So why kol ha’am? This teaches that everyone was to be included in the covenant and in the encounter with the Divine, regardless of ability or disability. For example, in describing the duties of the priests the Torah excludes those priests with certain physical defects from offering sacrifices at the altar. There is a practical element here; one who is blind or lacking in full use of their arms would be unable to use the knives and hoisting the animals onto the fire. However, these people are still entitled to the privileges of the priestly class.
The Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud also recognized a range of abilities to carry out the commandments. Those who lack the capacity to understand the commandments are not liable for any violations, for instance. However, despite this, such people are to be fully included in the life of the Jewish people and in our special relationship with God. Hence the four children of the Pesach haggadah. Our responsibility as a community is to include each person in a manner appropriate to their understanding and abilities. This is the essential meaning of the Israelites gathering at Sinai to receive Torah. The covenant not only binds us to our God, but to each other. Just as we are obligated to be loyal to God, we are obligated to be faithful to, and inclusive of, all of our fellow Jews. — 1 Sivan 5777
This post written by Rabbi Howard Stein. Rabbi Stein serves Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, and sits on the JRS Judaic Committee.