This sermon was delivered at our Shavuot Shabbat service on June 7th, 2024. You can watch a re-recording on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on Contact Chai podcast.

Last week I was in Washington, DC with the Interfaith Alliance — a coalition of clergy and lay people advocating for inclusive democracy and the maintenance of healthy boundaries between religion and government. This organization was started thirty years ago in response to the Religious Right, to provide a political counterpoint to Christian evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who claimed that they represented the only authentic voice of faith in this country. It’s a role that has only become more necessary. It is not just that faith has been weaponized against our schools and libraries, access to abortion, the safety of the queer community (especially trans and nonbinary folks) — but the Religious Right, in addition to championing conservative values, has cast themselves as the last line of defense for the moral rectitude of this country. It’s great PR. And it is dangerous for our democracy.

And so I found myself at a conference center near Capitol Hill with a couple hundred people from across the country and across faith traditions. I sat next to folks from Wyoming, Alabama, Florida, Vermont, Hawaii (including someone who went to the same high school as me), Georgia, and Massachusetts. I ate meals with Buddhist priests and Protestant ministers. I chatted over coffee with a research fellow from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the head pastor of the largest LGBTQ-affirming UCC church in the country.

Jews have blessings for everything (or nearly everything). For bread, wine, and candle lighting. For seeing a rainbow or the first blossoms of spring. For hearing thunder, or good news, or that someone has died. There is also a blessing for seeing a strange or unusual person: Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam m’shaneh ha’briot — blessed are you, source of all things, who makes creatures different. Looking around the room, I was reminded of this blessing. How remarkable and rare it is to see people of exceptionally different backgrounds coming together for a common cause.

Because the people that the Interfaith Alliance had gathered at the capitol were really, truly different. Living in my generally progressive corner of Chicago, I not only forget how broad the spectrum of political and religious beliefs are in this country — but how wide the range of opinions can be within shared identities. I was reminded that a Democrat from the North Side is not the same as a Democrat from Laramie. I found myself holding differences with people about gun ownership, the reliability of mail-in voting, the benefits of health interventions for trans youth, and — yes, of course — the ongoing tragedies in Israel and Palestine (probably less surprising to those who know me, I was to the left of folks on all of these things).

Yet when we were called on to lobby our congresspeople about legislation aligned with the mission of the Interfaith Alliance, people were able to set aside their (many) differences and speak with one voice.

I’m going to admit that I’m one of those folks who finds Washington, DC inspiring. The monuments, the memorials, the soaring marble facades of our government buildings – it makes me want to believe in the American Dream: that this might be a place where all people have the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, we know that this idea has not yet been realized – now, or at any point in the past 246 years of this country’s existence. But something about walking those storied boulevards, seeing smiling school children on field trips to the capitol building, meeting with aides and staffers who are so sincere, so earnest about their jobs – it made me feel like that dream might actually be possible.

In many ways Washington, DC is our nation’s Mount Sinai: the place where people have gathered to dream bold visions of what might be and what we might become. I think it’s important to revisit these places, to be reminded – in a world that seems so broken – of the hope that we must remember and keep, shamor v’zachor, lest we give in to despair. Jews have been returning to Mount Sinai for thousands of years. It’s built into our calendar with the holiday of Shavuot, a celebration of receiving the Torah (aka our founding documents) and with it a vision of the promised land: a better future that we can reach, if only we commit to the long journey that it will take to get there.

Our tradition teaches that revelation was a shared experience, our people standing together at the base of the mountain to receive the Torah. We are told they spoke with one voice, v’ya’anu khol ha’am yachdav – and the people answered as one, saying: all that God has spoken, we will do. And not just those who were there, but every Jew who was and who ever will be. Recounting this moment in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses says that this covenant was made with all who were standing with them that day and all who are not standing with them that day. The rabbis ask: who are those that are not standing with them that day? Every future generation of Jews and every future convert who chooses to join the Jewish people. Standing at Sinai, we were one — all ages, all abilities, all gender expressions, all Jews: past, present, and future.

Yet even as we experienced revelation at the same time, we did not experience it in the same way. The rabbis teach on a peculiarity of a verse from Exodus: “And all the people, who had gathered at Sinai, witnessed the thunderings” — why “thunderings,” in the plural? Rabbi Yochanan — a Talmudic sage — teaches that when God spoke, the divine voice divided into seventy tongues and each of those into seventy languages so that everyone could understand revelation according to their ability, from old and wise to the infant who had not yet been weaned. Each person was given a unique fragment of revelation, an experience of Sinai that only they could perceive. This is why Jews traditionally learn in chavruta, in partnership; to reach a better understanding of the world, we need to encounter perspectives different from our own.

There is a dynamic tension in Judaism between the particular and the universal. Our tradition is built on a shared experience of revelation, which calls us to build a better future not only for ourselves but for all people. Yet charting the path toward that future relies on our unique understanding of how to get there, our individual talents and abilities informed by the particularity of our background, context, and life experience. Particularity, and particularism, is not a bad thing, per se. Diversity contributes to the richness of our people, of the societies we live in, and humanity as a whole.

When we open the Torah this week, we find ourselves at the beginning of BaMidbar — the Book of Numbers. The first passages of this text are devoted to a census: the division of the Israelites into tribes, each making the journey to the Promised Land following their tribal elder, under their banner emblazoned with their coat of arms. The tribes were given a designated place to pitch their tents within the larger encampment. Some, like the Levites, were assigned particular roles. Others, like the Tribe of Benjamin, developed a unique culture (in this case, the Benjaminites were known for being especially pugnacious — expressed through their distinctive style of fighting left-handed). And when they reached the land of Israel, each was given an allotment of land that they would call home.

The problem arises when the tribes forget that, even though they are walking their particular paths, the journey is made together. When the Israelites finally reach the Jordan River, when they are standing at the edge of the Promised Land, the elders of Reuben and Gad pull Moses aside and say, “We’re not going. The land around us is perfect for grazing and we have a lot of cattle. We don’t want to waste our resources trying to carve out space for ourselves on the other side of the river. You go on ahead.” Moses is (understandably) upset. “Why will you turn the minds of your kinsmen from entering the land that God has promised?” he asks. Do you think you can stand idly by while others fulfill this vision? And do you really think you’ll be okay going it alone?”

In the end, they come to a mutually beneficial agreement. The Tribes of Reuben and Gad can settle their people (and their cattle) east of the Jordan River once a home for all Israelites has been secured. It is a “yes, and” — yes to their particular needs and desires, and also to the welfare of the larger community.

In Washington, DC — gathering with folks of diverse backgrounds and commitments — I saw people affirming the “yes, and” that functions as the engine of progress of this country. Yes, each of us (and our communities) have our own needs, wants, beliefs, vision of what is just and what is right and we are committed to realizing the founding ideals of this nation: that this is a place for all people to live with freedom of conscience, freedom of religion (or no religion), and freedom from want. Being in coalition with those who do not think like you yet are committed to work with you is inspiring. It is also uncomfortable. The conversations that brought our differences to bear were hard. Very hard. But if we allowed our differences to become the river between my tribe and your tribe, if we tried to do the work alone — then neither of us would succeed, each of us mired in our own silo, professing our righteousness, accomplishing nothing. 

Eric Ward — Executive Vice President of Race Forward and a national leader in racial equity work — was honored by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, one of Chicago’s oldest and largest Jewish social justice organizations. Speaking on this moment (and the election ahead), he warned us that the biggest threat to our democracy is no longer Christian nationalism. It’s the left. It’s our (and I say our, because I place myself on the left) idolatry of ideological purity, the idea that to be in relationship with one another we must agree on everything. It’s our unwillingness to stand in coalition with people who might disagree with us on other issues of importance, while working toward change in the places we can agree. Not that we are excusing people from words and actions that cause harm, but that in holding them accountable for those things we fail to partner with them in pursuing justice on other issues. It’s our tribalism at the expense of our shared humanity.

Particularity is not wrong. We can and should be proud of what makes us, us (it is Pride Month, after all). But particularism must be in dialogue with the universal, so that it does not become the force that atomizes humankind into increasingly isolated, ineffectual camps. History has taught us that progress is borne of uncomfortable but courageous coalitions.

There will be a time and a place for us to reach across the deepest divisions in our society. I don’t think we are quite ready for that moment. But we must prepare, because the only viable future is a shared one. So to prepare for that day, to build the resilience and spaciousness of heart required to be in those kinds of relationships, let’s start closer. Let’s start here, in our community.

I am proud and grateful that this is a community of many tribes: straight and queer, old and middle aged and young, across the political spectrum (okay, maybe across a small range of the political spectrum), kosher and traif and eco-kosher, Zionist, anti-Zionist, and non-Zionist, atheist, agnostic, and theist, traditionally observant and lovingly irreverent. Coming together to celebrate our shared tradition while honoring our diversity, exercising the spiritual muscle of coexistence in the presence of difference — that’s what we’re doing here. That’s the whole project. And when it works, it works. Coming together has enabled us to give thousands of dollars away to Gazans and Israelis in need; to resettle immigrant families; to advocate for reproductive freedom, police accountability, and housing access here in Chicago. We’ve created brave and empowering spaces for Jews and Jewish-adjacent folks who have often been left out or pushed out of other communities. We can’t and shouldn’t agree on everything but it is powerful to see how much we can do, when we connect on what we share.

In a few days, we’ll celebrate Shavuot and the giving of Torah. Our Torah. May it truly be a return to Sinai, a moment of reorientation toward revelation: that vision of a better future, a more just and peaceful world, for all of us. All of us. Not only with those who were standing here with us today but also with those who are not standing here with us today.