Of Hope and Timbrels
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
BESHALACH EXODUS 13:17 - 17:16
27 JANUARY 2018 / 11 SHEVAT 5778
God tells Moses to have the Israelites set up camp at the Sea of Reeds, but then Pharaoh changes his mind about freeing the Jews and chases them. With the Egyptians close behind, God splits the sea and Moses leads the Israelites through it. When the Egyptians enter, God closes the waters and the Egyptians drown. Miriam leads all the women in song and dance to celebrate their freedom. Before long, the Israelites complain about life in the desert. God provides quail and manna to feed them. The Israelites battle the Amalekites and win.
Then Miriam, the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her and danced. Ex. 15:20.
What on earth made Miriam and the women think to pack timbrels?
Some years ago, about this time of year, I was really sick. I was getting ready for my second round of chemo for Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, and my doctor had just sent me information about bone marrow transplant. Acute Myelogenous Leukemia is a very aggressive kind of cancer, and bone marrow transplant is often the best chance for a cure. The hope was that my new marrow would make cancer-free blood, but bone marrow transplant is also pretty risky. I knew it was very possible that I might die during treatment.
In between rounds of chemo, I was able to come home from the hospital. I spent a lot of time on the couch, looking out the window, and thinking about life. And death. I couldn’t get my head around it. How do we make sense of something so . . . big?
I reached out to my rabbi, Rabbi Allen, and I asked him to come and be with me and help me know how to keep going, and how to think about the time ahead of me. Treatment was hard, and it was only getting harder. Bone marrow transplant would be hard, too. How should I face it? Rabbi Allen suggested that I think of a couple of friends from out of town I would like to see on the other side of transplant. He said I should get in touch with them, and ask them to come and visit and help not too long after I hoped to be back home from the hospital.
I knew I might die; but I also knew I might live. Practically speaking, I knew we would need more help taking care of me after I came home. I would be weak, and Liddy and the friends and family who had been taking care of me for months would be tired. It would help to have back-up. But it was more than practical, what my rabbi was advising. It was an opportunity to see an old friend, to visit, to make origami flowers, and to laugh about memories of things that had happened long before these scary things I was hoping to live through.
Rabbi Allen was helping me have something to look forward to. He was encouraging me to pack a timbrel.
Maybe that was a little bit how Miriam felt when she put her timbrel in her pack.
Can you picture Miriam and the women back in Egypt during the plagues? Maybe their conversations were a little like that imagination game – that one where you think about: If you had to leave your home in a hurry, what would you take with you that you could carry in a backpack? I can imagine those women looking around their homes and thinking, “Okay, if we end up getting out of here, what will I really need?” Life was hard for them. They knew escaping slavery would be hard, too. And scary. They knew they might not make it. Pharaoh might never let them go, or they might die trying to get away. If they did get out, they would need things to survive the wilderness. Even survival was going to be hard.
Maybe they picked up a pot only to put it back down and pack a lighter one. Maybe they rested their hand on a favorite blanket, knowing it had to stay behind. Maybe they struggled to believe they’d ever get to the other side of this hard thing.
What did Miriam think when she saw her timbrel sitting on that bench by the fire?
It would take up precious space; it wasn’t even even all that small.
But what if. . . what if they actually made it out of Egypt? What if they won freedom from slavery? What if they survived these hard things so they could face new hard things?
They might want to celebrate. They might want to dance and laugh. That was certainly something to look forward to. To hope for. Into her pack went the timbrel.
And not just her pack. All of the women packed a timbrel. Thousands of women.
As they hurried together out of Egypt, I wonder if they could hear the unmistakable rattle of each other’s instruments tucked safely in their bags. I wonder if the sound of music just waiting to be played helped inspire them to keep going even though it was so hard.
We read it now knowing how the story is going to end. We know they will get out, we know they will be free. We know they are going to dance. We know. We must remember that they did not know. Just like I did not know. And they packed their timbrels anyway.
When we find ourselves facing hard things,
and we don’t know what the next part of our story is going to be like,
may we listen for the music just waiting to be played,
may we travel with others who pack hope as well as cooking utensils, and
may we remember Miriam and the thousands of women who took their timbrels out of their damp and dusty packs, looked out on a vast and dangerous wilderness, and danced on the shore of the sea.