After the stanzas about one God, two Tablets (the Ten Commandments), three Patriarchs, four Matriarchs, etc…, the penultimate verse begins “Who knows 12?” And we answer, “Twelve are the tribes (of Israel).”
Strikingly, on the very holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s journey to becoming one nation, we’re reminded that ours is not a homogeneous people and never was. We began as 12 tribes, distinct families, with different responsibilities and abilities, and even separately allocated portions of the land of Israel.
And all led by Moses, an Israelite who spent most of his childhood living as an Egyptian, and who we’re told was “not a man of words … heavy of mouth … heavy of tongue.” He is introduced by what makes him different.
Today, our Jewish “tribes” have significantly multiplied.
We’re different denominations and post-denominational. Dispersed across the world. Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Jews of color. We differ dramatically in how we practice Judaism, in what we believe is the right way forward for Israel, in our political affiliations, and in how we live our lives. Just a small example, relevant to the season: some of us follow a tradition that celebrates rice at the Seder table. Others follow a tradition that strictly forbids it.
But, as I’m constantly reminded in my role at UJA, when we commit to coming together as a community, our differences serve only to make us stronger.
Last week, I attended UJA’s (aptly numbered) 12th annual Hilibrand Autism Symposium, where hundreds of people came together to learn about the ways we can support people on the autism spectrum and their loved ones. The conference — which was also live-streamed nationally — included family members, caregivers, professionals, and people who are on the autism spectrum themselves.
We watched a deeply moving documentary about Emma, just 16, who also presented with her mother at the conference. Emma is on the spectrum and nonverbal, and was at one time assumed to have low cognitive function. At a school for children with disabilities, teachers used new technology to help her learn to type. Once she had the tools to “talk,” it emerged that Emma was highly intelligent, with an extraordinary ability to express herself with powerful and poetic prose.
The barrier Emma faced — not that dissimilar from Moses — was the assumption that she didn’t have the words simply because she couldn’t say them out loud. (Which, in the context of Passover, provides an alternative, more literal lens to the child in our Haggadah who “does not know how to ask.”) More broadly, Emma’s story is about her distinctiveness, which was also the point of the conference — to recognize that there are so many individual stories to which we must give voice, and that our community is strengthened and enriched by holding them all.
Beyond these stories, there are also the collective stories that belong to us all — like the ones we tell every year at the Seder. They are our common history, but at the same time reflect the richness of our differences, which have existed all along.
So as we retell our people’s stories tomorrow evening, let’s acknowledge and celebrate what makes us different, and also what brings us together. And let’s sing about the 12 tribes of Israel, with joy.
Wishing you and your loved ones a healthy and happy Passover.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach