Keep composure, tambourines in tough times

Music, song and dance are often an outgrowth of happiness and inner freedom. The creativity enables a person to escape the straits of this world and inspire the listener.
An ancient circular percussion instrument comprising a wooden frame with skin stretched around it and small jingles called “zils” — the tambourine — has accompanied light and joyous song over the ages.
In his famous song, Bob Dylan chooses a man playing the tambourine as the figure, the inspirer. The song begins with a tired and numb individual, still awake at the crack of dawn, calling out the chorus: “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me; in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.
The dreamy atmosphere progresses in intensity until the narrator is finally freed by the tambourine man’s song and declares:
“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
“Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
“With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
“Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
The beautiful consonance on “s” in the last stanza — “silhouette, sea, circle, circus and sands” — whispers the noise of ocean waves to the listener. The relentless rhyming, bardic imagery mixed with American energy leaves the meaning of the song a mystery.
Jumping from pop-culture to sacred scriptures, in this week’s Torah portion we encounter our ancient song of freedom, one of the 10 pre-eminent songs in the history of Israel, where an experience of salvation finds expression in music and verse. In this case, the inspired poetry is preceded by fear, not weariness. There are no allusions to psychotropic drugs — but there is plenty of prophecy and intensely embroidered imagery. And here, the muse is not Mr. Tambourine Man — it’s a tambourine woman.
“Miriam the prophetess … took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: Sing to God…” (Exodus 15:20-21)
An obvious question arises when you consider the situation: The Jewish people had suffered in Egypt for 210 years. At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan, the last of the 10 plagues visited the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. Pharaoh’s opposition was shattered, and he virtually chased the Israelites out of the land. They left in such a hurry that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise.
The Jewish people thought they were freed from the shackles of Egyptian exile, about to fulfill the promise, the dream of redemption. Then everything changed. Behind them they saw an Egyptian army, racing closer. In front, they saw mammoth waters. They were trapped, facing death at the foot of the sea.
The spectacular scene that unfolded — the splitting of the Red Sea, walking through the dry sands surrounded by still walls of water while their enemy’s chariots were thrust deep beneath the waves — is the masterpiece of all miracles. Within a normally divisive people emerged unparalleled unity, the memory of a common past, an inspired present, and a shared fate. A spirit of prophecy permeated their being as words of intense joy and wonder were sung in perfect unison. The image was engraved in history, known as the Song of the Sea. The biblical passages, read this week, were inserted into our daily prayer service.
But wait a second…where, in all of this tumult, did these tambourines come from?
The commentaries explain that the women were so certain that God would eventually perform miracles that they packed the tambourines and took them out of Egypt. Simple enough. Yet hidden in this tiny explanation is a powerful message about faith and trust, best illustrated by the leading figure, Miriam.
The name Miriam means “bitterness,” because at the time of her birth the Jewish people entered the harshest phase of exile and pain. The commentaries further relate how she asserted herself through the years, campaigning to ignore Pharaoh’s destructive decrees, never giving up trust in the promise of redemption, and encouraging her people to likewise remain hopeful. As her baby brother Moses was placed in a basket at the banks of the Nile, “she watched from afar, to see what would become of him.”
When facing difficult times, being strong is only the first step. Having faith is a greater test of character. And trusting, despite appearances to the contrary, is exceptional — especially to the point of planning your celebration in the midst of crisis. So the above verses, telling of tambourines and dance, also convey the extent of these women’s resolve and vision; they made sure they’d be ready to rejoice when and however the deliverance came. This is one reason the Talmud notes that “in the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were saved.”
The broader lesson is that, both personally and collectively, we must have a vision of the better future and keep our eyes, mind, and heart open. Sometimes the answer to prayers comes from the last place you’d expect. Be ready to celebrate when your opportunity suddenly arises.

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