Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
In the Leo Lionni classic children’s story Frederick, a community of mice work hard to get ready for the winter by storing up food. But Frederick just sits and contemplates, he seems to be loafing. He keeps telling his fellow mice that he is doing something “I’m soaking in words, and colors”. Winter comes, they eat all their stored rations, and have to subsist on crumbs for the last weeks before spring. Cold and hungry, they turn to Frederick. “Where are the words and colors you stored up?” and he sings to them of the good times to come, with images so real they can taste them. Frederick assists them to get through the last days before spring comes. Imagination is a powerful antidote to despair.
As we approach the days of Passover, we also approach the culmination of the many miracles that brought our people to freedom. We read of the birth of Moses and his extraordinary upbringing in Pharaoh's palace, his awareness of his true nature and revolt against the cruelty of Pharaoh's power. Fleeing to the desert he encounters a bush that burns yet is not consumed and perceives the Presence of God, summoning him to return to Egypt to demand the freedom of the Israelites from the new Pharaoh. Accompanied by his brother Aaron, they perform wonders and miracles - rods turning into snakes, rivers into blood, pestilence, locusts, boils, hail, culminating in a night of waiting as the Angel of Death passes over the land, slaying the firstborn males of all the Egyptians. Only then does Pharaoh relent and permit the Israelites to go free.
Yet that moment of consent is fleeting, and Pharaoh quickly regrets his momentary openmindedness. Harnessing his chariots and mustering his troops, he pursues the ragtag Hebrews to the brink of the sea, and then Moses wades into the waters with his rod held high, and the waters part on either side, allowing the Jews to walk to freedom on the other shore. Still in hot pursuit, the Egyptian troops pursue the Hebrews, but once the Hebrews reach safety, Moses again holds out his rod over the waters, and they return to their normal state, drowning the murderous Egyptian military.
Overwhelmed by their own miraculous salvation, the Israelites burst into song and dance. First Moses and then Miriam the prophetess. She takes a timbrel in her hand, and all the women go out after her in a dance with timbrels. Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea (Ex 15:20-21).
The last two days of Pesah celebrate our arrival by the shores of the sea, the mustering of courage to make the waters part, and our arrival to the difficult challenges of Freedom on the other side. Rabbi Brad Artson relates that “Passover is made of many, many miracles, but …The greatest miracle of Passover took place just after Moses informed the Israelites to pack in haste for their own impending flight. As Hebrew families ran through their homes, hurriedly stuffing a few necessities into a cloth so they could carry it on their backs as they fled to freedom, women in the households were making anguished choices about what was necessary and portable, and what was not necessary, hence dispensable.
And the women chose to pack their timbrels!”
Rabbi Artson suggests we imagine for a moment what the crazy scene looked like as everyone is rushing trying to find all the materials to leave. Pots, pans, clothes, food, fuel, sacks and then someone sees a timbrel and thinks, "We are going to become free. I've never been free, and my grandmother couldn't even remember freedom. Let the others take the items for material survival. I will take this so we can dance."
Woman after woman, these bold Israelites took their timbrels and packed them away, knowing that bleak misery would someday give way before joy and justice. They knew, in their bones, in their feet, that soon they would need to dance.
So they packed their timbrels even though they were still slaves, even though Pharaoh remained in power, even though they could barely imagine what freedom would feel like.
And because of those acts of faith, Miriam was able to dance with the women, and our people were able to taste the heady intoxication of liberty!
All of us live lives interspersed with suffering and pain. All of us, individually and as a nation, face challenges, disappointments, tragedy and sorrow. But the darkness does give way to the light, and joy comes in the morning. That is the message of the last two days of Pesah - don't despair. Better times are possible, and they will come. God liberates slaves and destroys despots. To be free, we must dance. Don’t forget, in your sorrow and your isolation, to pack your timbrels.