The story of the 10 Commandments is one of my favorites in the torah. The storyline could not be better – it begs for popcorn and a blanket next to a good fire. A people, once enslaved and now free, is wandering in the desert looking for a path to a new homeland. They stop at a mountain and their leader disappears. Suspense ensues. Moses has gone up the mountain! When he returns, he is expected to bring down the 10 Commandments and to begin a new journey as a people committed to a vision of living a holy life.
I questioned as a child why God would bring all the Israelites out in to the middle of nowhere to give the 10 Commandments. Why not just take them to Israel on a direct route and give the Law over at that time? It didn’t seem to make sense. What lesson could possibly be learned by three months of wandering around in the middle of the desert? Interestingly, the Mehilta Derebbe Yishma’el, an early commentary on the Bible, offers us a clue that I believe speaks to the radical inclusiveness that exists within pieces of biblical tradition. The Mehilta teaches that “The Torah was given in public, openly, in a free place. For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world: You have no share in it. But since it was given in the wilderness, publicly, and in a place that is open to all, everyone wishing to accept Torah may come and accept it.”
What a beautiful teaching! To me it is akin to my colleague and friend, Rev. Tara Wilkins, a UCC minister, who often says that religion should have a “y’all come” mentality – a sense that everyone has a seat at the table. And for an ancient text like this to offer an opening to rethink the giving of torah, to show us a path in when it may appear that some are to be left out – that is a true thing of beauty.
The real question remains – so what? So what if torah is open to all? The idea of an open access policy feels important to me because it forces the issue of inclusive religion. It mandates that all are accepted if they freely choose to be part of this sacred community – or in the language of our torah portion – to be part of the kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The teaching of the Mehilta offers us an insight into what the ancients thought society and religion ought to look like.
Sometimes the journey is just an aid for a juicy retelling. But every so often the journey is about something more than just the average attention span of a member of the faith community – sometimes it reaches beyond in search of a deeper truth. The truth offered here, in this journey is that everyone, regardless of gender or sexual identity, is offered a seat at the table of biblical tradition.
But that kind of radical inclusion is not without its challenges or burdens. It places the burden for inclusion squarely on communities and institutions by rooting the value of inclusiveness and equality in one of our most ancient midrashic texts. It offers a challenge to the institutions of the faith community to build structures, both physical and metaphysical, that support the inclusion valued here. But it also places the burden of seeking religion out on the individual – one me and on you. It challenges us to use the values of our midrashic tradition to demand our seat at the table from all branches of religious life and community.