What did Joseph’s bones symbolize to Moses and the generation of the Exodus? And what should those bones mean to us?
Table for Five: Passover Final Days
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.”
-Ex. 13:19, Torah reading for 7th Day Passover
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
There is a profound psychological truth at the heart of the Passover story – a truth the Jewish people have had to repeatedly learn throughout the years of our exile.
It is to my mind the best explanation for the continued existence of the virulent virus of anti-Semitism that has afflicted us from the time of Egyptian servitude to the present. Why, we wonder, does the world hate us so much? Why, after all that we have contributed to every land in which we settled, do we remain the ones most often chosen to be victims of oppression?
The answer is implicit in Mark Twain’s famous rhetorical question: “Why does that man hate me so – I never did anything for him?
All too often hatred is directed not to those who harm us but rather to those who challenge our self-worth by way of their superiority. It is hard to bear the burden of being grateful to people who stand out by way of their talents, their achievements, and their contributions. Anti-Semitism is the envious response of the world to the unparalleled accomplishments of the Jews. Go back to the slavery of Egypt. Joseph was the man responsible for saving the country. His brilliance saved the land from the famine that afflicted all its neighbors. And so it was almost inevitable that “a new king arose who did not know Joseph” – or better put did not choose to remember the Hebrew who saved his empire. That’s why Joseph begged his descendants to “take his bones with them” – so that they never forget the message.
Bracha Goetz, Author of 38 spiritual children’s books
More than a hundred years before our Exodus, Joseph, the governor of Egypt, had made a request of his brothers before passing from this world. He made them promise that his bones would be taken with them when the Jewish people would return to the Land of Israel. Joseph’s brothers’ remains were also honorably re-interred from Egypt to Israel, and yet the Torah only specifically mentions Joseph’s bones being found in the depths of the Nile and taken by Moses on the journey from enslavement to freedom. Why is this?
In Hebrew the word for bones, atzamot, is closely connected to atzmiut, the Hebrew word for essence. Bones, the physical framework of the body, correspond to the spiritual framework of a person, one’s essence, the soul. While his brothers were shepherds, Joseph was the leader of the greatest superpower of the time. Even while involved in potentially consuming high-profile work, he managed to remain steadfastly aligned within the framework of his pure essence.
During this time of major transition, it was vital to have the inspiration of Joseph’s remains accompanying us in our journey. Joseph showed us how to act royally and lead with wisdom while immersed in exile. It is a message to continue to carry with us still today. God will surely remember every single one of us, no matter how distant – or enslaved – we may become. From the depths, ultimately, our essence, too, can still rise to redemption.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
Wise people, in parenting and in life, disagree as to whether scripted, somewhat-forced apologies should be extracted from children who err. There is an argument that from the habit of offering sincere-sounding words of apology, a child learns contrition and respect. Alternatively, there is the argument that words, even apologetic ones, offered without intention are empty. Better to lead a child towards the feeling of regret, such that words of apology will emerge organically.
I find myself vacillating, but recognizing that even if the former argument is correct, it is right to question the half-life of any apology. If, even when sincere, it is not followed up with actions that reinforce learning and growth, then retroactively an apology is hollow. When the injured party is not present to forcefully remind the injurer of the injury, how will that injurer act when next confronted with a chance to injure?
The medieval French commentary Hizkuni reads into our verse Joseph’s wanting to extract enduring contrition from his brothers. Joseph is not asking for a personal favor. Once he is gone, it matters not where his bones lay. But the brothers, already having expressed remorse, must complete their teshuvah (repentance) by undoing what they wrought, which was to initiate Joseph’s descent into Egypt. Even and especially when Joseph is gone, and his face no longer reminds them of their waywardness, it is incumbent upon them to show they meant their apology. The future character of the Children of Israel, and all children, depend on such forthrightness, and growth.
Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, The Chai Center
On the night of the Exodus, while the Jewish nation was amassing wealth, Moses was busy with an entirely different chore. Moses was on the hunt for Joseph’s body. With the help of an elder woman, he located the spot where the Egyptians sunk his body in a lead casket to the bottom of the Nile. They felt Joseph had the key to fertility, and the Nile would rise high and irrigate all their crops.
The Talmud tells us, for forty years there were two arks wandering the desert with the Jewish people. The Holy Ark, and Joseph’s casket.
Why was Joseph afforded this type of honor? Were his brothers Judah and Benjamin not deserving of such miracles? Because Joseph was the Viceroy and wealthier than Elon Musk we should give him front row seats like many temples do today? Why did G-d and Moses perform these miracles for Joseph?
Joseph was the first Jew as a “prototype” living in a foreign land. He got married in Egypt. He had children and grandchildren there. His home was Egypt.
Not only did he not succumb to the temptations that Egypt had to offer, he flourished as Jew. As a religious Jew. He studied Hebrew with his children, Jewish history, and even built yeshivot later for his family. He didn’t just survive Hollywood as a Jew, he thrived. He was an inspiration to all.
So for Joseph, G-d chose to make miracles and show the Jewish people for forty years that Joseph is My man.
Aliza Lipkin, Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel
Why was it Moshe who specifically took Yosef’s bones out of Egypt when Yosef exacted the oath from the entire nation?
Moshe went through many circumstances that caused him to identify with Yosef. Both spent a good portion of their life in the Egyptian palace and managed to maintain their faith, morals, and ethics.
Both were chosen by God to be the leader of the Jewish people. Yosef at the beginning of the exile and Moshe at the end.
Yosef at 17 was sold down to Egypt by his brothers. They resented and hated him for acting superior to them. After he told them about his dreams of leadership, they incredulously exclaimed, “Will you reign over us, or will you govern us?”
Moshe too, was forcibly estranged from his home at around the same age after displaying leadership qualities over his Jewish brethren. They similarly proclaimed, “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Yosef was a Jewish legend. Perhaps his legacy profoundly impacted Moshe and gave him the fortitude to act in righteous indignation and maintain his moral compass on his lonely journey. Only Moshe could fully appreciate Yosef’s impassioned plea to take his bones out from “this” having experienced was “this” truly means. Moshe’s action displays his deep emotional connection and gratitude to Yosef. Moshe and Yosef suffered personal hardships that not only strengthened their character but shaped a nation.
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am
In the Talmud (Sotah 13b) we learn, “It was more of an honor for Joseph to be buried by the many than by the few.” Joseph was not buried by his own children, but by the following generations, who first carried his remains lovingly through the desert for 40 years, and then brought the bones to their final resting place in Shechem. We read in Joshua 24:32 that this great mitzvah is thus attributed to all of the Children of Israel.
In our generation, the great mitzvah that we can perform together is preserving the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust. Of this terrible time, Poet Nelly Sachs (1891 – 1970) wrote: “O the chimneys / on the carefully planned dwellings of death / When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke / through the air – ” For these victims, we have few precious remains: no bones, no gravesites, only smoke. But when we remember these six million Jewish men, women, and children, we collectively honor their lives and bring a measure of peace to their souls.
Joseph promised his descendants that God would remember them. This promise, according to R. Hirsch (1808 – 1888) “became a ray of light that kept the hopes of coming dawn awake through the dark centuries that lay ahead.” This upcoming Yom HaShoah, may we be the light that was hoped for during the dark years of the Holocaust. Let us teach our children to remember, and to celebrate all that we are fortunate enough to have today.
With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Aliza Lipkin and Nili Isenberg.
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