Revelation of Universal Design

Sally was excited to go to camp as a new camper. At the same time, she was anxious to see how it would work in light of her being deaf. She was hopeful that it would not be a problem because she knew how to read lips. Sadly, some things just did not work for her. Evening programs that were held outside were alienating. She could never really trust the blindfolded trust-walk. At night with her bunkmates in their cabin she was left out of conversations happening in the shadows. Camp was supposed to be a place where she could belong, but that was not her experience. While she knew it was not her peers’ intention, she felt less than; she surely did not feel like she belonged. 

There are echoes of this feeling among the Israelites when Moshe tried to free them from slavery. In an effort to win their emancipation, Moshe went to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of granting the Israelites a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load the Israelites complained to Moshe and Aaron. They said, “May God look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. It seems that the last straw was not the lack of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive. They thought that they smelled worthless. They felt less than; they did not feel like they belonged.  

We are left wondering why the Israelites perceived that the Egyptians saw their odor? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. We see a similar synthesis of senses in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed. 

What did not work for the slaves making shoddy bricks and did not work for Sally at camp might offer us a deep understanding of the nature of revelation. When we feel excluded, we are embarrassed, and we feel that we do not belong. When we look past the content of revelation to the modality, we see a profound call for Univeral Design. Universal Design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. The synesthesia at Sinai was designed to be inclusive without diminishing the experience for anyone. While Sally might not have been able to hear the sound of thunder, she would have been able to see it. If someone could neither see or hear they could have felt the vibrations. Universal Design is not a synonym for compliance with accessible design standards, rather the aesthetic of synesthesia at Sinai is a standard of beauty, spirituality, and communication to all.  

In describing the Israelite’s experience at Sinai in Deuteronomy it says, “those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with them who is not here with us this day”. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) What does this mean if revelation at Sinai happened thousands of years ago? What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to experience revelation.  

Every soul is unique, every Jew has their place at Sinai, and everyone belongs in our community. By adapting Universal Design strategies, we can make sure that everyone has an extraordinary experience. As we celebrate JDAIM, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, we need to reconnect to the lesson from the synesthesia at Sinai. As we learn from Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: every day a heavenly voice of revelation goes out from Sinai (Avot 6:2). Designing with every soul in mind is not easy, but we get to work on it every day. No one should feel less than, or left in the dark. 

– Links to other posts on synesthesia

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