I often tell each Bar or Bat Mitzvah something that I heard from someone much wiser than me: One does not select the story of Torah that you will read as you become a Bar Mitzvah, but the portion chooses you. Being a believer in some sense of this kind of mystery and magic, I was trying to pay attention at this morning’s Bat Mitzvah rehearsal …
As we began our review of the service the Bat Mitzvah brought out the hand crafted and colorful new tallit that she would bless and wear while she leads tomorrow morning’s service. Much to our surprise we noticed that in the location on the tallit where we expected to find the blessing one recites upon donning the tallit there was another Hebrew phrase. We examined it together and (also helped by the clue of the image of a woman dancing on the tallit) discovered it was this verse from Exodus: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand …” (Exodus 15:20).
With my own aphorism in mind, I wondered: What might I glean from the appearance of this phrase on this morning?
A bit of context first … Just a few beats earlier in Exodus , the Israelites had taken their last steps through the two walls of water created by parted Sea of Reeds. On the previous beat the walls of water crushed the Egyptian army as those same walls crashed and crumbled around them. Miriam grabs her timbrel (or some kind of musical instrument – scholars debate its true identity) and begins to celebrate. Following her lead many other women grab their instruments and join the celebration. When I consider this phrase on this morning one question comes to mind: Where did they get those instruments?
We have all played the game in which we hypothetically ask what items (beyond people and pets) we would take if our house was on fire or for any reason we had to leave our homes at a moment’s notice. Granted some musically inclined people would grab one of their instruments, but I am not musically inclined in that manner. I would imagine there would be many more things on my list (and other’s lists as well), especially if I was escaping slavery and wondering what I might need to survive in the desert.
Rashi, the prolific 11th century French rabbi, asked this same question about this element of the story centuries before it percolated in my mind. Rashi’s take: these women’s perspective was such and their faith so strong that they believed there would be things to celebrate out there in the wilderness. They knew they would NEED an instrument with which to lead a celebration.
They didn’t just grabbed their timbrels, the seized hold on an ATTITUDE. They expected to celebrate. Despite the urgency and chaos of the moment of leaving Egypt; despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead of them in the wilderness (including the possibility of hunger, thirst and even death) they grabbed their timbrels because they expected joy.
Its not a bad attitude to grab and hold on to … no one has to go too deeply into the news to encounter a sense of hopelessness or futility. If the news of the day was not enough, we are called to get very serious during these days of Elul. We reflect and review our limits, our failings, our pains, our sins … oy.
So, it is not at all a bad message for this morning of this day, or any morning of any day: Grab your timbrel. Expect joy. Be ready to celebrate.