If you had to flee your house and could only take one object, what would it be? It has to be an object - let’s assume family, and pets are already taken care of. You may be the practical type - your wallet or your phone. You may be the sentimental type - a photo album, a piece of jewelry. Or, you could be like me and resign yourself to running out with nothing because your brain just doesn’t work that fast.
I imagine what you choose could probably say something about your personality. Our tradition does seem to support the idea.
For example, in the Book of Exodus, we learn that after witnessing the miraculous split of the Red Sea, after observing the decimation of the Egyptian army and when feeling the first indications of freedom, “Miriam the prophet…picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums.”
The sages pause here. Sounds like a fun celebration. But they ask: um, weren’t we told that the Israelites left in the dead of night? Didn’t we learn that they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise? If they left in such haste, with nothing but the unbaked dough on their backs, then where did these drums come from?
The Israelite women were faced with the dilemma: “We’re leaving right now. I can take one thing.” And the one thing they all chose was a timbrel.
Rashi explains the rationale, commenting on the womens’ character: “the righteous women in that generation [brought their timbrels because they] were confident that God would perform miracles for them.”
Basically, the women knew deep in their hearts that something good was coming. They knew they would need to sing songs of praise and thanksgiving, and they came ready to do so.
There is a fine line of distinction here, though. It’s one thing to believe that God will perform a miracle and to sit back and let the miracle happen. It’s another thing to run towards the miracle and be ready to celebrate it, to come ready for it with gratitude. In the first scenario, one passively waits, and is likely disappointed. Miriam and her cadre exemplify the second scenario, wherein they participated in the miracle - they, and others, willed it into being.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks places this distinction between passive belief and active hope in the context of Jewish history:
“One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”
Miriam the prophet epitomizes this through her whole life, and even in her death. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we get word that Miriam dies and is buried in the wilderness. Numbers chapter 20 verse 1 delivers the news. Verse 2 then reads: “and the community was without water, and they rallied against Moses and Aaron.”
It could just be the start of a new story, but the sages say It is no mistake that the well dried up immediately after Miriam’s death. The Israelites had the well on account of her merit. (Side note: this is why we put water in our Miriam’s cups on Passover).
But what was her merit, specifically? It was that Miriam willed miracles into being. Even before packing her timbrel, earlier on when baby Moses was placed in the basket in the Nile, she followed him and watched over him. She chose to step out from the reeds to speak to Pharaoh's daughter and offer her mother as a nurse to the baby. Miriam knew that Moses was destined to work with God to save the people, but she didn’t sit back and let it happen. She was a woman of hope and action: she followed that basket, she packed her drum. She acted as guarantor of the miracle.
We too must maintain hope in the face of a world that seeks to snuff it out. But this is not passive optimism. Optimism is easily broken by reality. We have too much empirical evidence to prove that things aren’t getting better any time soon.
Hope, though. Hope comes with a mission. Hope means “I’m packing my timbrel. I’m grabbing my protest sign, I’m writing my representatives, I’m going to vote.”
As God’s co-creators, there is no other way. Because the reverse of all of this is true. God is not an optimist when it comes to humanity. If the Book of Numbers shows us anything it is that God is constantly disappointed and frustrated by us. We give God plenty of evidence of our cowardice and hubris. And yet God never gives up hope on the Israelites or the Jewish people today. As soon as we step back in with some courage and gratitude, God is happy to lift us up and have us soar on eagle’s wings.
I’ll close with the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who was meditating near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Lo, the Prophet Elijah came to visit him! "When will the Messiah come?" asked Rabbi Joshua. "Ask him yourself," replied Elijah. "the Messiah is sitting among the poor and sick at the gates of Rome. Like them, he changes the bandanges of his wounds, but does so only one wound at the time, rather than all at once, so that he can get up at a moment's notice and herald the World to Come."
So Rabbi Joshua went to Rome and met the Messiah, who greeted him back. Rabbi Joshua then asked "When will you be coming?" and the Messiah said "Today!"
But the day went on and the Messiah did not come. Joshua went back to Elijah and said that the Messiah had not told him the truth. Elijah explained "This is what the Psalmist meant when they wrote, “Today…if you will hear my voice.” The Messiah’s arrival is conditional on our hopeful actions and our honest effort in helping to usher in that time of peace.
So pack your timbrels, people. The only way it’s going to get better out there is if we watch over the vulnerable, speak truth to power, and find moments of gratitude. Perhaps the Messiah will come today, if we just heed the voice of our conscience.