I’m no sports fundi. If anything, I inadvertently congratulate the Liverpool supporters when Man U wins. Still, I am intrigued by sport. More correctly, I’m fascinated by the fans’ incredible passion. When I first heard guys at the morning minyan exclaim “we won last night”, I’d wonder “won what?”. Over time, I came to learn that “we” really meant “our soccer team”, which left me wondering how munching chips and swigging beer in front of the TV put you on the team. I get it now; everyone wants to be on the winning team. Everyone wants something to celebrate.
The cliched summary of Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” portrays the many reasons our People have to celebrate. Our holidays also remind us of how many close shaves the Jews have had. Considering the number of failed attempts on our lives, we could teach the world a thing or two about celebrating the good times. Our gruelling history can also teach us how to respond when there seems to be no reason left to celebrate.
At the moment, the latter point is more relevant than the former. When sun-rays break through cloud it’s Instagram-worthy, but when you’re in the storm, it can feel unrelenting. It is easy to celebrate when your team has won or when your family has a simcha. Not so easy when the multiple rolling Tehillim groups beep all day or when you’re fighting to keep your business alive. Of course, we will celebrate the end of the Covid-19 pandemic someday, please G-d. The critical question is, “What do we do until then?”.
This Shabbos is called Shabbos Shira, the Shabbos of song. Its name references one of Judaism’s most famous songs, “Az Yashir”, when Moses led the Jews in enthusiastic praise of G-d, after the miracle of the splitting of the sea. After Moses ends his song, his sister, Miriam gathers the women to do the same. Miriam’s song was unique, it included a component that Moses’ did not have- music.
If you had seen the post-miracle jubilation of the men, you would not have imagined just how down they had been a few hours earlier. As they had stood sandwiched between the sea and a fast-approaching Egyptian army, they had faltered. Some had prepared to surrender to their slave-masters, while others had decided to drown themselves in the sea. Only when Moses had raised his staff to part the waters did their despair lift. Once safe, they had allowed themselves the luxury of song.
Their team had won; they could celebrate.
The women’s experience was altogether different. They played music. You have to wonder how they had musical instruments handy. The Jews had been given short notice to pack up their lives and march into the desert. The rush out of Egypt was too rapid for dough to rise, so who had the presence of mind to pack tambourines in the midst of that chaos? Besides, where did those instruments even come from? Ancient Egypt doesn’t strike one as a free-market environment where slaves could readily purchase hand-drums. So, the women must have fashioned their own tambourines, which implies that they had an uncanny- even irrational degree of optimism. In two centuries, no slave had ever escaped Egypt, yet these women clung tenaciously to their faith in Moses’ promise of liberation. They believed so strongly that they prepared to celebrate, even before the first plague struck Egypt.
It reminds me of a popular Chabad story. When the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, was arrested on false treason charges in 1798, the Chassidim feared the worst. They summarily split the community into groups to pray, raise bail money, lobby the government and petition great spiritual leaders for blessings. One sprightly Chossid took an unorthodox approach and began to distil vodka. His rationale captures the essence of Jewish faith: “We trust that Hashem will provide a miracle, which we will happily celebrate, so we cannot afford to run out of lechaim when the festivities erupt.”
Fifty-three days later, those Chassidim toasted their Rebbe’s miraculous release with that maverick Chossid’s vodka.
It is no achievement to celebrate a win once you have won. The secret is to taste it in the thick of the challenge. The Talmud teaches that it was the women’s faith that generated the miracle of Exodus. Those who had prepared to celebrate G-d’s in advance made those miracles happen.
2021 isn’t shaping up to be the much-hoped-for antidote to 2020. It seems that many are feeling as overwhelmed now as our ancestors were at the edge of the Red Sea. This Parsha encourages us to prepare to sing. Start humming a tune of faith and, please G-d, Hashem will soon enough give us reason to belt it out at full volume.