"From Where Did the Israelites Get Timbrels in the Desert?"

“Miriam the Prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with flutes” (Exodus 15:20). So teaches this week’s Torah portion in the immediate aftermath of the Song of the Sea, or, better, perhaps in generation of the Song of the Sea, as my beloved teacher, Rav Bonna Devora Haberman, z”l, taught.
The early Midrashic work Mekhilta of R. Yishmael asks a fundamental question:
“But from where did the Israelites get timbrels & dance-flutes in the desert?!”

“?!וכי מנין היו להם לישראל תופים ומחולות במדבר”

This question is deceptively perceptive. On its face, it asks a technical question, but at its heart is a profoundly human one: How does liberation happen? How does it actually happen? If real human beings under real oppression are really emerging from it, what are the mechanics? How does a bunch of slaves who just made a run for it get timbrels and flutes in the desert? Consider the midrash’s answer:

“Rather, righteous people were confident and knew that the Holy Blessed One was doing miracles & mighty things for them, so when they left Egypt, they constructed timbrels and flutes.”
“.אלא הצדיקים היו מובטחים ויודעים שהקב”ה עושה להם נסים וגבורות. עת שיוצאין ממצרים והתקינו להם תופים ומחולות” 

A few lessons can be learned here. No, I’ll say it more strongly: I think we are at our peril if we don’t learn these lessons, and truly internalize them:
1) Confidence is crucial and precedes triumph; redemption requires swagger. Even though the Israelites were long-time slaves, some had the confidence to prepare for triumph. Maybe being commanded to despoil the Egyptians on their way out helped them build up that confidence. That is, being assured that their labor was valuable — that they are valuable — that they were owed reparations, and that they had the backing and even the obligation to confront their oppressors to demand them, is profoundly constitutive of human dignity and confidence.
2) Liberation needs celebration: There’s a time for confrontations, and morbidity; there’s also a time to bust out those instruments and shake your booty. Some Israelite women understood that. Liberation that doesn’t pass through song and dance may be a mirage.
3) Liberation requires preparation. The midrash could have said that their confidence led them to bring the instruments they already had. It could have easily said that these timbrels and flutes were in the spoils they took them from the Egyptians. No, they made them. Real swagger isn’t just spontaneous and in the moment. It plans ahead.
4) Granted, the language of the midrash for “righteous people”, is the “all-inclusive”, masculine “tzadikim”, but it’s hard not to read this as especially the women who were doing the preparation work with the instruments, since it’s the women who have and use the instruments. Throughout the exodus story, women, at the bottom of the totem pole, reject the option of trying to socially climb into slightly less subordinate positions by selling out their people, but understand that real freedom requires solidarity and dignity. It’s the women who are the swaggering, well-prepared, freedom-fighters who understand that celebration is at the heart of liberation. Rashi, commenting on this verse, understands this when he renders the midrash in the feminine:

.מובטחות היו צדקניות שבדור שהקדוש ברוך הוא עושה להם נסים והוציאו תופים ממצרים

“Righteous women of that generation were confident that the Holy Blessed One was doing miracles for them, so they brought out timbrels from Egypt.”

Making instruments takes time. That means that during Egyptian captivity, before seeing the shocking slaying of the first born or the wondrous parting of the sea, during the dark hour of oppression, these women played the long game, banked on liberation, believed that it was coming, and prepared for it painstakingly. Victory does not come just through playing defense against crisis, but, even in hours much darker than ours, playing a long game to win.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.