Parashat Yitro tells the story of the Sinai covenant. The people stand at the foot of Sinai mountain, filled with awe: “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud… mount Sinai was altogether on smoke… and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”
When we talk about “the people” do we mean only men or men and women?
Some Sages suggest that the use of language in the plural form refers to both men and women, who participate in the Sinai covenant as equals:
“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob” — the women, “and speak to the children of Israel” — the men. “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob” — “gently”; “say” — Give the women the basic ideas. “and speak to the children of Israel”: “speak” in detail to the men (Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael).
The Sages suggest that that the appeal was made both to men and to women. However, the way the words were spoken and the content of what was spoken were different. The women were approached with a gentle tone, and were given a concise version of principles. The men were approached in a more adamant tone, and were given the law in detail.
However, when we are told: “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: ‘Be ready against the third day; come not near a woman,’” can we still argue that the Sinai covenant was an equal, all-inclusive, communal event?
It seems like the Sinai covenant as an event imbued with holiness, demands for a separation between the holy and the secular, purity that is aligned with men and impurity that is aligned with women. In light of this view, it is interesting to read Rabbi Elazar son of Azaryah:
“Do not draw near to a woman”: From here it was ruled that if a woman ejects semen on the third day (after intercourse) she is pure, as is implied by the Sinai directive (Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael).
According to Rabby Elazar son of Azaryah the three day sexual abstinence was decreed in order to enable women to participate in the Sinai covenant. While a man can purify himself immediately after sexual intercourse, the woman might become impure even after three days because of semen ejection. Therefore, the decree “come not near a woman” was proclaimed in order to insure that the women would be able to purify themselves and take part in the covenant as equals.
In the poem “Explicitly Named,” Hava Pinehas Cohen suggests a different view on the Sinai covenant. The men go to the mountain and wait there, while the women are still occupied with domestic chores such as doing the laundry and feeding the babies. Instead of a separation between the sacred and the mundane, the poet suggests an experience in which the spirit and the matter, the sacred and the mundane are combined into one whole.
All have already gone to the mountain waiting,
waiting to see, waiting very quietly,
even the donkeys and camels are unusually calm,
in this stillness not a bird chirped,
nor children on their father’s shoulders
the silence unbearable as if before
a great and terrible thing,
and I still wanted
to hand the laundry to dry,
make time for myself to freshen up,
and I warmed the baby’s milk so it won’t starve,
won’t cry, God forbid, at the wrong moment,
how much longer until it is all over. Waiting for the laundry to dry and the baby too.
and I saw that a light breeze,
like the breath of a sleeping man,
went through the wash, swelling
the belly of my nightgown,
and the Sabbath tablecloth
became a white sail in the middle of the desert,
and we went from there upon the blue
far away to a place
where we split pomegranates and sucked their juice
to a place where love is explicitly named.
~Hava Pinehas Cohen, Explicitly Named. Translated by Tsipi Keller.
Feature Photo: Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears (1893).