Be-shallah: Pack a Timbrel in Your Survival Kit (13:17 – 17:15)

Be-shallah: Pack a Timbrel in Your Survival Kit (13:17 – 17:15)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

For twenty-seven years, my father was progressively incapacitated by a large pituitary tumor that strangled the hypothalamus in his brain.  During many of those years, he was in a private nursing home where my mother, who had looked after him at home for the first nine years, now visited him every day. On Sunday mornings, I would leave my four children at home with their Dad and join my mother, an accomplished pianist, there. While my mother played the songs of their youth that the residents of “the confused floor” loved, I would use my drama skills to engage them in circle dancing and singing. I have always felt that, despite the circumstances, these were richly Jewish moments. As Cantor Jonathan Friedmann teaches, music has been deeply embedded in our tradition from the earliest times of Judaism [1]. It has the ability to touch the deepest recesses of the soul even when memory is gone.

Perhaps the Hebrew (Habiru) women fleeing from Egypt at the time of the Exodus understood instinctively that human beings need more than bread alone and hastily packed musical instruments in their survival kits along with the unleavened dough. Then, in the moment of the Hebrews’ victory, Moses’ sister, Miriam, knew instinctively that music is the very “sound of the soul,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it [2].(Jonathan Sacks, Be-shallah 5777). In fact, as she takes out her timbrel and summons the women to join her in dancing and singing, we are informed that she is a prophetess (something that will prove to be important later, “when she and Aaron will speak against Moses”[3].

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20).

According to the Jewish Study Bible, Miriam’s actions were “[i]n keeping with the custom of women celebrating the victor after a battle (Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18.6). So it is quite conceivable that the women brought their timbrels in expectation, or at least hope, of a victory.  And then Miriam led them in what is considered to be the earliest text in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam), often called the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15: 1-21).

The medieval rabbis tend to be of the opinion that the men sang first and the women sang later, but the 16th century rabbi, Sforno, explains “time frame of the song which Moses and the Children of Israel sang” in this way: “When Pharaoh’s horses and his chariots and horsemen came into the sea and were drowned there, at that same time Israelites were walking on dry land (Exodus 14:9), and it was then …that they began to sing” [4]. He does not differentiate gender. Today’s biblical scholars believe that Miriam sang first, and the women chanted what she sang in response. In other words, the Song of the Sea, was chanted in a call and response pattern.

Dancing, too, was an important part of ancient Israeli culture. Nor, as Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut explains, was this expression of emotion confined to women. “There are, in fact, no fewer than eleven Hebrew words denoting dance, suggesting that ritual choreography was extensive and highly sophisticated” [5]. (Plaut, 452).

Thus the oldest passage in the Bible, “the Song of Miriam, or Song of the Sea, expressed in poetry and song and dance, is the earliest reaction we have by an ancient writer to the culmination of the exodus story: the Red Sea calamity”….People likely “sang it within maybe a hundred years, maybe a year, of the event.” [6]. (Friedman, Exodus, Kindle, Loc. 736). And that is how this Red Sea adventure became “an early and decisive element of Israel’s story” [7].

Surprisingly, the great 12th century rabbi, Maimonides, known for his rationalism, provides a literary – and visual — analysis of the Song of the Sea, as it is written in Hebrew in the Torah scroll. No translation can compete with the power of the Hebrew language or poetic imagery that calls to mind the bricks the enslaved Hebrews were forced to make for the Egyptian Pharaoh:

“Short brick over long brick, long brick over short brick….The song has to be written in thirty lines. The first line is regular. The following lines alternate: one line is broken by one space in the middle, another is broken by two spaces, thus containing three units. Thus the lines alternate between two spaces and two written units” [8].

[1] Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ed., 20th Century Synagogue Music: Essential Readings (Los Angeles: Isaac Nathan Publishing Co., 2010).

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Beshellah 5777,  Received, Jan., 2018.

[3] Richard Elliott Friedman, Exodus (HarperCollins: New York, 2017), Kindle ed., 220.

[4] Rabbis Nosson Scherman and  Meir Zlotowitz, Gen. Eds., Sforno, trans. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1993), 320.

[5] Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut, General Ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. 452 (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006 )

[6] Friedman, op.cit., Kindle, Loc. 736.

[7] Ibid., Kindle, 221.

[8] See Friedman, opcit.;; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, op.cit.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.